Don't gut SF campaign law

"The Ethics Commission should have used a scalpel, not a sledgehammer"

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The U.S. Supreme Court, which has already ruled that corporations can spend all the money they want on political campaigns, dealt another huge blow to democracy in June when it struck down a campaign finance law in Arizona that was designed to level the playing field for candidates running against better-financed opponents.

The ruling has implications for San Francisco's public finance law, and already the Ethics Commission has moved to amend — some would say gut — the ordinance. The supervisors also have to approve the changes, and they should move cautiously; there is much about the local law that can still be saved, and there are experts working on alternative models that could still work under the Arizona ruling.

The Arizona law gave public funds to candidates who agreed to limit personal spending to $500. The more privately financed opponents and independent expenditure (IE) committees spent on a candidate, the more public matching money the other candidates received.

The idea: if one rich candidate — or one candidate supported by deep-pocketed special interests — tried to dominate the election, the others would be given enough money to make things fair.

That's the same motivation behind San Francisco's law, which sets a spending limit for the mayoral and supervisorial races, provides matching funds for small contributions — and gives public money to candidates who are attacked by outside independent expenditure committees.

It's possible that the current IE match won't hold up to legal scrutiny under the Arizona decision. And already some of the city's biggest downtown interests are threatening to sue to overturn the local ordinance. But there is much about the San Francisco law that will likely survive a court challenge.

Bob Stern, a campaign finance expert and president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, told us that he's working on a new model law for cities like San Francisco. The Ethics Commission knew that when it voted July 11 to eliminate matching for IEs and to reduce the available pot of money.

Now the law comes to the Board of Supervisors, where eight votes are required to accept the Ethics Commission amendments. Good government advocates say the supervisors should do only what is clearly legally necessary: "The Ethics Commission should have used a scalpel, not a sledgehammer," Oliver Luby, a former commission staffer, told us.

The November mayor's race is a huge test for the city's law; this will be the first time effective public financing will be in place for a citywide race, and the success of the ordinance will draw national attention. The supervisors should stop short of so badly amending it that it will lose all its teeth.

The board should hold public hearings and solicit input from local and national experts. The supervisors shouldn't be intimidated by downtown lawsuits and consider only the most limited changes — after reviewing every possible alternative.