Big Money in Initiatives Isn't New

Michael Hiltzik tells us at the Los Angeles Times that California’s initiative system is big, noisy, and expensive. The role of big money shouldn’t be accepted as “the new normal,” he argues.

He’s right about not settling for what we have. Like a lot of people, he’s wrong about this year being something new.

Big money from wealthy political players and interest groups has been part of the process all along. Before there was Tom Steyer, the San Francisco hedge fund operator behind Prop 39, there was Rudolph Spreckels, the San Francisco sugar magnate, behind Hiram Johnson and the creation of the initiative.

Current figures suggest that spending on this year’s initiatives will top $360 million, or about $20 per eligible voter. That’s a lot of money. The spending per voter is about twice what Nike spends each year per Californian to sell us shoes and sports gear. It’s also more than the $285 million that organizations and individuals spent last year to lobby the Legislature. But then we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s a lot more expensive to communicate with 18.2 million voter-legislators than it is to communicate with the 120 people we send to the state Capitol to represent us.

But adjusted for inflation and the growth of the number of voters in the state, this year’s initiative campaigns will spend less than was spent on initiatives in 1988 or 1998, two other big years full of controversial measures. What Hiltzik calls the “new normal” is, regrettably, just normal.

Joel Fox's Secret Money

While I’m on the subject of Jerry Brown’s whining, let me point out that one of his whines is entirely justified: It’s outrageous and beyond the pale that Joel Fox and the campaign against Props 30 and for 32 are polluting the election with an anonymous $11 million laundered through an Arizona “non-profit,” Americans for Responsible Leadership, which lists among its public purposes — you can’t make this stuff up — “educating the public about concepts that advance government accountability, transparency, ethics….”

For years right wingers have been opposing restrictions on campaign contributions. All that’s needed, they told us, is sunshine. Early in the George W. Bush years, when Congress was considering and then passing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, conservatives offered as an alternative the bill called DeLay-Doolittle—as I say, you can’t make this stuff up. It called for deregulating campaign finance and leaving only a robust requirement for electronic disclosure of all campaign contributions.

But as Mark Schmitt recently observed, the right wingers didn’t really mean it. They have now turned into full-throated opponents of disclosure as well, a position Joel Fox echoes in his limp defense of secret contributions.

Read More

Richie Ross Spills the Beans on Top Two

It’s not every day you hear a political consultant complain about election rules that stuff money into his pocket. But that’s just what Richie Ross, the veteran Democratic political consultant, did in a recent op-ed criticizing California’s new top-two election system.

The big story of the new system, Ross writes, “is that these latest ’reforms’ resulted in outcomes that don’t change much but cost a lot more.”

Read More