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Campaign Contribution Limits Removed for Independent Committees, Unchanged for Individuals  

By Ann K. Williams
Lookout Staff

May 13, 2011 -- Independent expenditure campaign committees will be allowed to raise all the money they want in Santa Monica elections now that the City Council has altered an existing ordinance to bring it in line with federal law.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie also proposed changing the ordinance to raise the limit of campaign contributions from individuals from $250 to $400, but the five council members at Tuesday night's meeting decided to table the issue until a meeting at which more council members are present.

While the often intense debate seemed to center on the limits of contributions from individuals, the specter of independent expenditure campaign committees (IE's) and their deep pockets was never far from the discussion.

“One of the things that everybody who's studied politics knows, is that if money wants to get into politics, it will get in,” said Council member Bobby Shriver. “One way or another. You can say no, we're going to stop it, and that's a good thing, but it has a way of getting in.”

“And with this court decision, the way it's going to get in is through IE's. There's nothing we can do about that,” he said.

Shriver was referring to the United States Supreme Court Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision that ruled that cities may not limit expenditures by committees not set up by a candidate. City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said that the federal law required that the Santa Monica ordinance be changed.

The council was divided over whether or not to raise the limit on donations from individuals to city candidates.

Council member Kevin McKeown didn't want to, and cited the platform of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights – an IE itself, said Shriver – in support of his argument.

“The question is, do we care where the money comes from to support the candidates who run for city council,” McKeown asked. “I would posit that we do and we should.

“In fact it's part of the platform of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights organization that endorsed the majority of the council members that are up here tonight that we do everything in our power to keep at least half the money in our local elections coming from local residents,” said McKeown.

McKeown said that raising the limit would tip the balance against local residents, who he said tend to give in increments of $10, $50 or $100.

“I don't think it serves the community to keep opening the floodgates wider and wider,” he said.

McKeown was joined in his opposition to the higher limit by Council member Terry O'Day, who said he looks “at this more as a solution in search of a problem.”

“I don't hear people in our community clamoring to give politicians more money,” said O'Day. “If they are, they should call me, I guess.”

But Council members Shriver and Gleam Davis supported raising the limit, albeit for different reasons.

Davis was concerned about the legal consequences of keeping the limit low.

“That would leave us vulnerable to a legal challenge,” Davis said, referring to the city attorney's argument for the change. “That amount [$250] was so low as to effectively quash meaningful speech.”

She countered McKeown's argument about the amount usually given by individuals.

“If the average resident is giving $25 or $50 or $100, the resident can still give that amount,” Davis said. “Raising the maximum doesn't change the resident's ability to participate.

Shriver was more focused on the economics of the situation.

“Even the phrase raising the limit is a little misleading,” said Shriver, pointing out that a contribution of $400 today is, if anything, lower than one of $250 in 1992 when the ordinance was enacted.

“So the limit has not gone up, actually the limit has gone down,” he said. Meanwhile, contributions to IE's are now unlimited, he said.

Shriver illustrated his point with an imaginary graph, using his arms. One arm was nearly horizontal, standing for the stagnant rate of growth of the value of individual contributions while the other shot nearly straight up, like the rate of growth he anticipates IE's will see.

Wouldn't it be good if some “idiosyncratic” candidate had a chance of winning in a local election, Shriver asked. If limits were raised, a group of 20 of the candidate's friends could chip in $400 and the candidate might get noticed, he said.

But, “the public has to understand that the real money isn't with 'giving money to the politicians' as you frame it, Council member O'Day, because they're not going to call you or me,” said Shriver.

“They're going to call the IE guy to whom they can give whatever they want, ten, 30, 40 grand,” he said.

Shriver had already made it clear he wasn't only talking about “people who have large property interests, or potential property interests in the city,” but also groups like the Fire and Police unions and Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR).

“Under the current law, the biggest spenders in our elections are the IE committees, right now, the police IE, the SMRR IE,” he'd said.

“Right now, if police, fire and SMRR don't support you, you don't get elected in our town,” he added later in the debate.

Davis and McKeown were quick to defend these groups.

Davis said that they provided a valuable service by vetting candidates and informing the electorate.

They're “tremendously effective in Santa Monica because of their credibility, not because of the amount of money they spend,” said McKeown.

“What really concerned people [in the last election] were these independent expenditure committees and some of the allegedly...deceptive, some of the tactics they used,” Davis said.

“We do have IE's in town who have accepted very, very large donations, amassed huge war chests, usually under some nonce name, made up, nobody knows who they are,” said McKeown. “It's really the back room of some political consultant's office, and they will spend tremendous amounts of money.”

But Shriver said they weren't seeing the whole picture.

“The...idea, that I think maybe you're not giving a lot of weight to, is when the limit was originally set, IE's were regulated. So there was some parity,” said Shriver. “Now the IE's are unregulated, unlimited....It gives the credible, local IE's a huge amount of power.”

Throughout the latter part of the debate, several motions were made and amended until O'Day suggested that the issue of raising individual limits be tabled until more council members were present.

All agreed to this, and then voted in favor of that portion of the matter before them that brought Santa Monica election law in line with the Citizens United decision.

They did not pass one other part of the City Attorney's proposal, which would have deleted wording that several called “a firewall” prohibiting interaction between campaign committees run by and for individual candidates and “uncontrolled” campaign committees.


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