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Santa Barbara, CA 93103
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Op-Ed: Public Finance Key To Election Reform

November 23, 2019

 

(Editor's Note: Today Newsmakers presents an opinion piece from Supervisor Das Williams about political ethics and campaign finance reform. Laura Capps, Das's challenger in the First District, wrote on the subject earlier this week).

 

Action speaks louder than proposals.

 

I am proud of my two-decade public service record of election and campaign finance reform. Serving this community for nearly 20 years, including six as state Assemblymember, has granted me deep insight into what local residents want.

 

Three key issues come up repeatedly: 1) overturning Citizens Unitedand reforming independent expenditures; 2) ending gerrymandering; and 3) providing public financing of campaigns. 

 

While I was running for Assembly, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, declaring that the First Amendment prohibits restricting independent expenditures by corporations engaged in political communications.

 

Soon after I entered the Legislature, we passed a resolution opposing the Citizens United opinion, calling on Congress to introduce a constitutional amendment overturning the decision. I also voted to place Prop 59 on the ballot, urging the legislature to use all its power to object to the Citizens United decision. It passed by a clear majority.

 

In addition to working to overturn Citizens United, I advocated for the California DISCLOSE ACT.

 

It requires any political advertisement funded by an independent expenditure committee to disclose its top three financial contributors visibly in the ad. For example, we’ve seen political commercials funded by groups with benign, often deceptive names like “Santa Barbara for a Better Tomorrow.” Under the new law, such an ad would have to read: “Santa Barbara for a Better Tomorrow funded by . . .” and list its top three financial donors.

 

Gerrymandering – where elected officials design voting districts in order to pick their voters, instead of voters picking their elected officials – is another threat to full representation.

 

California voters responded to this issue by creating an independent redistricting commission for state legislative districts in 2008. I am proud to have worked with the League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara to sponsor Santa Barbara County’s local ordinance, which establishes an independent redistricting commission for Supervisorial districts, and has become a model for other counties throughout the nation. Voters approved the ordinance with the passage of Measure G in 2018; the application process for selecting redistricting commissioners will begin mid-2020. 

 

Additionally, there is the critical issue of public financing of political campaigns – something I have supported my whole career.

 

BecauseCitizens United forbids restraints on independent expenditures (i.e., by groups not directly affiliated with candidates), public financing wouldn’t solve the issue of private money in campaigns. But it would help dilute the power of large money contributors, and change the way elected officials fundraise.

 

Ideally, I would like to see our region implement a campaign voucher system like Seattle’s, or even a public finance match like the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Unfortunately, there is a huge obstacle to achieving this locally – it is unconstitutional in California for candidates in general law cities and counties like Santa Barbara County to receive public funds for campaign purposes (Los Angeles and San Francisco are charter counties and cities so the rule does not apply to them).

 

While I was in the Legislature, we began work to overturn this provision by passing SB 1107, which would delete that provision and allow public financing of campaigns. The bill was challenged by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association and ruled invalid by the Sacramento Superior Court. The state appealed the decision and we await the next step.

 

Once public financing for campaigns becomes possible, I look forward to working with stakeholders to find an option that works for our community. 

 

Lastly, the Governor just signed legislation to place statewide contribution limits on candidates for local office, which I fully support.

 

We need real solutions on elections and campaign finance reform – not proposals that fail to acknowledge state and federal constraints on reform. And we need realexperience to achieve them. I look forward to continuing to tackle this issue and so many others our community is facing. 

 

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