Don't water down campaign laws

Eliminating the donor spending cap could spell trouble for SF democracy

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EDITORIAL The San Francisco Ethics Commission, which is hardly aggressive about cracking down on campaign-finance violations, has suggested some rule changes that would water down the city's ethics laws. The supervisors should reject most of the suggestions — and start talking about real reform.

The commission has asked Sup. Scott Wiener to bring the changes to the board, and Wiener told us that he has problems with some of them and is going to be working with his colleagues, particularly Sup. David Campos, to fix the package.

It will need a lot of amendments to be acceptable.

The current proposal would make life easier for campaigns and big donors, but would make it harder for the public to figure out who's putting up the money and where it's going. For example, it would exempt from the spending cap all money spent complying with the ethics laws. That sounds fair at first glance — but the amounts involved are huge. For a mayoral race, as much as $147,000 would be exempted. That's a lot of money for "compliance."

More important, the ethics proposal would eliminate the restrictions on how much a single donor can give in an election season. Right now, the cumulative limit is $500 for each office on the ballot, which limits the impact that a handful of big-money contributors can have on an election. Under the new rule, a wealthy person who wants to make sure that every politician in town owes him or her can donate the maximum to a long list of candidates, giving more power to a few.

Wiener says that under ranked-choice voting, donors should be able to give to more than one candidate for a single office. Fine — but the cap doesn't have to be eliminated. It could easily be amended to account for RCV.

The plan would somewhat loosen the reporting requirements in the last days of a campaign, eliminating weekend disclosures. It would decrease the transparency rules for campaign committees that shuffle money back and forth to hide its true source. It would aalow more spending by independent committees with less disclosure.

In other words, it would undermine the ability of the voters to know who is funding which candidates and initiative campaigns. There's no reason to do any of that.

The problem with the current law is not that it requires too much disclosure — it's that, in many ways, the controls on political money are too weak. And if the supervisors are serious about reform, there's plenty to be done.

Ethics laws currently bar anyone who is seeking a city contract from donating to local officials. But it's still perfectly legal for someone seeking a permit or zoning change to throw around cash. And there are endless problems with developers who need city officials on their side. Extending the contribution ban to anyone seeking special zoning or permit approval for any project with construction costs above a certain threshold — say, $10 million — would exclude, say, homeowners who want to build a new deck, but would limit the role of real-estate money in campaigns.

The amendments need eight votes to pass; before it even gets to the full board, the Rules Committee ought to ship this mess back to the Ethics Commission and tell the supposed watchdogs to try again.

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