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Council Hikes Campaign Contribution Limit

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By Jorge Casuso

April 20, 2022 -- The City Council last week took a different tack on campaign financing -- arguing that individual contribution limits need to be jacked up higher than inflation.

While previous Councils balked at the idea of such increases, some Council members on Tuesday viewed the proposed hike from the current $340 to the approved $410 as not nearly enough.

"Can we go to $500?" Councilmember Oscar de la Torre asked.

The answer -- that staff would have to return with a different ordinance -- was grudgingly accepted, although some Council members seemed open to revisiting the issue.

De la Torre argued that higher contribution limits for individuals could help level the playing field dominated by special interests, a sentiment shared by community activists who did not oppose Tuesday's hike.

That's because weathly donors can contribute unlimited amounts to Political Action Committees (PACs) that back individual candidates, de la Torre said.

"The people with a lot of money put it into PACs," he said.

"Or into ballot measures," joked Mayor Sue Himmelrich, who with her husband is bankrolling a measure that would dramatically hike the City's property transfer tax (“Mayor Launches Campaign to Hike 'Luxury' Real Estate Tax,” March 31, 2022).

The $70 hike approved by the Council -- which will be in effect for the upcoming November 8 Council race -- was nearly five times higher than the previous increase of $15 approved in 2016.

And it was nearly as large as the $75 hike it took the Council 19 years to approve in 2011 from the original contribution limit of $250 set in 1992.

In that vote, Council members rejected staff's proposal that the limit be raised to $400 to keep up with inflation ("Santa Monica City Council Talks Election Finance Changes," November 14, 2011).

Councilmember Gleam Davis, the only current member who was on the dais when the 2011 increase was approved, cautioned the Council against the "optics" of seeking a larger hike.

"It looks like you're trying to jack up your own contributions," Davis said before voting for the increase, which also covers Rent Control Board races.

In addition, she argued, approving a bigger increase would send the message that those making small contributions are not as important as rich donors who contribute the maximum amount.

"Most people can't afford the (current) $340," Davis said. "The idea is that we want (candidates) to go out into the community and have more people be able to participate."

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