Santa Cruz City Council candidates have historically fought for votes by amassing support through campaign contributions, using money as their key into the council. New campaign finance reform legislation may change that, setting all candidates on an equal monetary playing-field.

Over 50 people gathered to discuss election finance reform at the police station for the People’s Democratic Club of Santa Cruz’s campaign finance forum last Sunday. The discussion revolved around City Council member Micah Posner’s campaign finance reform bill, which the council will address June 10 of this year.

Posner said the lack of limitations on the amount of money spent in elections restricted viable candidates from running. As a result, people in lower socioeconomic classes are prevented from entering the race, Posner said.

“It’s perfectly possible to win elections while obeying the [current voluntary] limit,” Posner said. “No limits will lead to council members who are better at fundraising, or who are tied to money. We don’t get the people best for the city.”

A city ordinance passed in 2000 set the voluntary limits for campaign finance expenditures to “limit overall expenditures in campaigns, thereby allowing candidates to spend less time fundraising and more time communicating with voters,” according to the city’s website.

“Every candidate for the last 20 years accepted limits for individuals and organizations,” Posner said. “But in 2004 some candidates went over the overall limit of $26,000, some spending $43,000 or $44,000.”

The campaign finance reform proposal includes setting mandatory limits for individual and organizational contributions, as well as making the limits to overall expenditures mandatory.
Current voluntary limits are $325 for individuals, $780 for organizations and $26,641 for overall candidate spending.

Posner’s proposal also includes a provision that would provide a city funded one-to-one match to campaign contributions for every $5,000 raised, for up to $13,000 overall. Public funding would cost the city an estimated $50,000 a year, which makes up 0.26 percent of its overall $192 million budget. As of now, it is unknown how the money would be raised.

The proposal is based on public campaign financing systems in New York and San Francisco, which match $6 for every $1 raised, while the Santa Cruz public match would only be a one-to-one match if passed.

“If you’re a hard working activist who understands how people work and knows what social justice is, you’d be a great candidate,” Posner said. “It’s just less likely you’ll have those contacts to money. There can be many great candidates who are intimidated by the amount of money required to run for City Council.”

Simba Kenyatta, a candidate for City Council in 2008, said the proposed reforms don’t go far enough — private expenditures are the reason City Council has lacked diversity throughout its history.

“There should be no private money in public elections, at all,” Kenyatta said. “Just because you put a ceiling on the amount of money doesn’t do anything for people having a hard time raising any money.”

Kenyatta proposes the complete removal of private funding to allow a level playing field for all viable candidates, saying instead the city should impose a tax on local businesses to fund elections.

“We will have to be creative in financing elections. I’ve often thought a quarter of a cent city tax would bring in enough money to finance it,” Kenyatta said. “They can pass that tax on to us because as a concerned citizenry we want to see the best candidates available.”

Although an ongoing topic of debate, campaign finance reform has been revitalized in the past few years due to the Supreme Court cases McCutcheon vs. Federal Elections Commission earlier this year and the 2012 Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission case, which both partly deregulated election financing.

The 2014 McCutcheon Supreme Court ruling deregulated how many candidates donations can be given to, pushing campaign finance reform back in the spotlight. UC Santa Cruz professor Daniel Wirls, who holds a doctorate in government from Cornell University, said the McCutcheon ruling is a step against campaign finance regulation giving more of a voice to wealthier individuals compared to middle and lower class citizens.

“Many people see [the McCutcheon] case as the next step toward challenging donation limits directly,” Wirls said. “In theory you can write checks to all candidates across the country.”

Posner said the City Council members who had not accepted the voluntary limits during the last election may have trouble voting for the reform. But he’s confident it will pass sometime in the next few years and that it will have a large influence on Santa Cruz elections and who runs for City Council.

“We’ll have more diverse people running, we’ll have a more intelligent debate and we’ll waste less money,” Posner said. “We’ll preclude the possibility of more corrupt politicians in Santa Cruz.”