Pruning California's political money tree

Golden State is US campaign-spending capital, making initiative apotential watermark for reform.

Six months after the most expensive election in US history - the $118 million California gubernatorial campaign - a sweeping new measure to overhaul the state's campaign-finance and disclosure laws is attracting nationwide interest.

Called the California Voters Bill of Rights, the ballot initiative has been introduced by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz. Stunned by the amount of money spent in a string of California elections - including a $120 million initiative battle over Indian casinos - Mr. Unz says it's time to clean up the system.

"I had always been aware in theory of how all the abuses can take place in the current system, but [last fall] I came face to face with them," says Unz, who sponsored last June's successful Proposition 227, essentially ending bilingual education in public schools.

More-limited election reforms have been passed in the past two years in Arizona, Massachusetts, and Maine. But the California measure, experts say, will be a yardstick by which other states can gauge how to legislate reforms that have been gathering public steam in recent years.

"Because California is the largest state with the most money spent on elections, this will send a huge message across the country on just what kind of sweeping reform citizens want, what they care most deeply about," says Kathy Stanwick, president of Campaign Reform Project, a New York group that focuses on campaign finance reform at the federal level. "He's got everything including the kitchen sink in here, but he has crafted it well."

Unz's proposal, on the March 2000 ballot, suggests:

*Contributions of $1,000 or more would have to be disclosed on Internet Web sites within 24 hours of receipt.

*Candidates would be barred from raising money prior to the 12 months before election, and not be allowed to carry over campaign funds to future elections.

*Voluntary spending limits for gubernatorial candidates would be $6 million in a primary and $10 million in a general election for candidates who agreed to accept partial, matching public funds.

*The task of redrawing state and congressional district lines would be turned over to a commission of retired judges.

In winning Prop. 227, Unz spent $750,000 of his own money and had two paid helpers, a fax machine, and a Web site. This time around, he is collaborating with Democrat Tony Miller, a former acting California secretary of state and twice unsuccessful candidate for statewide office. A Miller-backed initiative on campaign reform, Proposition 208, passed last year but was struck down by a federal judge who held that individual, campaign contribution limits - $500 for statewide candidates and $250 for legislative candidates - were too low.

Unz says he learned from the mistake, as well as other California initiatives that have passed overwhelmingly with voters and run into court battles, most notably Proposition 187, which eliminated state benefits to illegal immigrants. "This initiative is iron-clad constitutional. We were very careful to draft it so it can't be challenged in court," he says.

It is also complicated, observers say, which could play into the hands of opponents. And its contributor limits - currently higher than for 44 states and the federal government - could be too high.

"This is the most comprehensive campaign-finance law I've ever seen," says Larry Makinson, director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. "The fact that he is going to the voters with this is somewhat mindboggling."

Mr. Makinson says the California Voters Bill of Rights has lots of good ideas, many not seen in other plans. He lauds the use of the Internet for near-instant disclosure of contributors and ads as well as a family provision which disallows contributions from minors. And he says forcing candidates to use up campaign funds on current campaigns will open the electoral process to more candidates who had previously been deterred by "carry over" war chests.

But he and others question the $1,000 and $5,000 contributor limits, as well as other ceilings spelled out in the bill.

"We are very encouraged that Mr. Unz has included public financing in these measures because we feel that is the best way to reduce the corrupting influence of special-interest money, impose spending limits, and reduce the fund-raising advantages of wealthy candidates," says Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause. "But we are concerned that a total pool of $15 million per year may not provide sufficient incentive to induce candidates to accept the measures' voluntary spending limits."

OTHERS note that Unz is hiding the real reason for his initiative, reapportionment reform, in a thicket of campaign-finance reform. The state is due for redistricting in 2001, and with a Democratic governor and legislature, is expected to create between 10 and 12 new congressional seats, which could significantly alter the power balance of Congress. Unz's initiative would take the process out of the hands of politicians, and give it to a body of retired judges.

"This is the most important issue for the Republicans but the hardest to sell to the electorate, so they are trying to sugarcoat the redistricting pill with the candy wrap of campaign reform," says Alan Heslop, director of California's Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College. The other redistricting initiatives in the offing could be a key hurdle for Unz.

"This initiative is so broad and covers so many things, opponents could be able to zero in on one or two provisions and polarize voters over the minutia," says Makinson.

To prepare for this, Unz has submitted four versions of the initiative, one that doesn't even include the provision for redistricting. "We are going to see which of our models gets the most bipartisan support and go with that one," he says.

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