Wednesday, August 19, 2009

HB 7 in Detail: Calendar year cycles

Contribution limits always come with time limits. In federal elections, a contributor may give $2,400 to a candidate for each election, so that a contributor who maxed out before Election Day can give again after Election Day. HB 7 sets astronomically high limits on giving to campaigns, much higher than in federal elections. And it sets those limits by calendar year, rather than by election. This difference raises some legal and policy questions.

At least one court has declared that calendar year limits are unconstitutional. A federal appeals court ruled in SEIU v. Fair Elections Practice Commission (1992) that the State of California does not have a sufficient interest in calendar years to overcome a person's right to participate in the political process. Courts are divided on this; other courts have approved calendar year limits. But when setting limits, it is fair to ask why giving more than the amount in a given time frame should be prohibited. Both the amount and the time frame have to be justifiable, and it is not at all clear what is so magical about January 1, that limits should restart on that date.

There are also policy concerns. Our state elections include primaries, now in early February, and general elections, in early November. Setting limits by calendar year means that a donor who maxes in January, before the primary, cannot give again to that candidate until long after the general election.

Now, most incumbent legislators are not opposed in the primary, and about half are not opposed in either the primary or the general, so maybe they aren't so concerned about this issue. But how is it in the state's interest to say that if you give the max on December 31, you can give the max again the next day, but if you max out right before the primary, you cannot give again until after the general? How does that time-frame address the fact or appearance of corruption?

Too, setting limits by calendar year allows incumbents to get a leg up on fundraising. This is especially true for officials in four-year terms, who can take in a couple of calendar years’ worth of contributions before a challenger would even consider running for their seats. How is a challenger who sat out the first two years of a four-year term without raising any money to compete against an incumbent who holds regular golf outings?

The better time frame for all offices is to set limits by the election cycle.

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