The Board of Supervisors Tuesday postponed voting on a proposal to cap individual campaign contributions to local candidates in any election out of concern that the original limit was too low.
Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, joined by Supervisor Chuck Washington, first introduced the proposal in August, and in the last three months, the Office of County Counsel has worked to fine-tune Ordinance No. 963, which would establish parameters on the amounts that can be donated to candidates for assessor-clerk recorder, auditor-controller, county supervisor, district attorney, sheriff and treasurer-tax collector.
The original proposed cap was $20,000 per contributor. However, after Supervisor Karen Spiegel was informed that the ordinance left open the possibility of inter-committee transfers far exceeding that amount, she felt it was unfair.
“Transferring funds with no limit is not ethical to me in many ways,” Spiegel said. “You could have someone transfer $1 million.”
Jeffries, the main sponsor of the proposal, agreed with her after learning of the loophole.
“We need to bump (the $20,000 cap) up just to compete,” he said.
According to Deputy County Counsel Tiffany North, the ordinance, as originally proposed, would permit a candidate for county office to potentially transfer six- or seven-figure sums from campaign warchests connected to other elections, such as for Assembly or Senate. As long as the monies received in those campaign accounts were contributions that complied with state law, they could be transferred to compete in county contests, North said.
All of the supervisors agreed the ordinance would need to be modified to ensure that competitors without access to capital from prior campaigns would have the ability to raise more money to remain competitive. Jeffries mentioned a possible new cap of $100,000, instead of $20,000 per contributor.
The matter will be reconsidered at the Nov. 10 board meeting.
The proposal points to the need for “transparency” and equity, mainly for candidates who are “facing deep pockets opponents” and are in need of a level playing field, financially, to compete.
The $20,000 cap would have applied to all individual contributions in a general, primary, recall or other election cycle. However, exemptions would be permitted for candidates who contribute to their own campaign.
For instance, the ordinance would permit a candidate to self-loan up to $100,000 per election, but in doing so, the loan recipient’s opponent would be entitled to accept an equal amount in funding to ensure parity, according to the proposal.
Post-election contributions, of any size, would also be allowed — but only to the extent necessary to amortize the “net debts outstanding from the election.”
The proposed ordinance further specifies that all individual contributions in excess of $1,000 would be subject to instant documentation and presentation on the Office of the Registrar of Voters’ portal for transparency, adhering to the California Political Reform Act of 1974.
So-called “independent” expenditures by outside organizations in support of a candidate would not be impacted or controlled by the ordinance.
Political action committees, unions, corporations and similar large organized donor groups generating and paying for their own advertisements and promotions are shielded from contribution limits under the U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v FEC, which was decided in 2010 based on free speech grounds.
Jeffries saw the need for a campaign contribution ordinance in response to Assembly Bill 571, which was signed into law by the governor in October 2019 and takes effect on Jan. 1, 2021.
Under the law, counties and cities that do not have campaign contribution limits on their books by that date will be required to operate under the default standards set by the state.
Under the state benchmark, the maximum individual contribution for a local candidate would be $4,700 — the same individual limit that currently applies to candidates for state Assembly and Senate.
Jeffries, with Washington’s concurrence, did not believe the $4,700 individual limit was realistic.
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