When it Rains (Money) it Pours

California’s governor just signed a new campaign-finance law authored by Senator Ben Allen, of Santa Monica. The law removes the prohibition on public financing of political campaigns in many places around the state. These places include general law cities such as Malibu, El Segundo and Beverly Hills. General law cities are governed by the state’s general law, which applies to municipal affairs. The new law, SB 1107 removes that prohibition, and those governments are now free to adopt public financing of political campaigns. These systems can be an alternative to private financing of campaigns, and make the playing fields for candidates and measures more even.

Charter cities, such as Santa Monica (which are based on a city’s “constitution” or charter) have always been free to adopt public campaign financing. Some cities in California have them, but not Santa Monica. Senator Allen’s measure has received widespread acclaim, so it is worth asking why Santa Monica, Senator Allen’s hometown, does not have a system for public financing of political campaigns.

Arguments about public financing of political campaigns have raged for many years. But in Santa Monica, one thing is clear: any measure that hits certain hot buttons among residents will pull in large sums of money from large organizations and companies. Land-use measures, especially, attract enormous corporate contributions. The infusion of large sums of money can transform a campaign.

This year we have measures that have attracted a lot of money. Measure GSH, a tax to help build affordable housing and schools, and Measure V, a $345 million bond measure for Santa Monica College have each drawn large sums in support of those measures. But it is Measure LV that has sucked in corporate contributions in vortex-like amounts.
LV is a grassroots initiative that would require voter approval of major development projects, development agreements, and changes to City land use documents. It excludes affordable housing projects, and moderate income and senior housing projects. One attention-grabbing feature requires that voters approve many projects that exceed city-wide base heights of 32-36 feet.

The arguments about this measure have been raging for months. In public forums, on the internet and in newspapers, the measure’s passionate advocates and its equally-passionate opponents have been battling it out in that traditional, messy way of political campaigns. Alliances have been created, monies raised, and volunteers sent into the streets. These are all actions of time-honored, robust American political campaigning.

Into this scene a new player now appears: corporate America, and its very large bank. In the last month or two, commercial interests, developers, real-estate companies and their consultants have contributed nearly a million dollars to fight the measure. For a city of only 94,000 residents, million-dollar political contributions change the basic nature of the contest. Where before this was a battle between residents with opposing views on land-use matters, it now looks more like a struggle between a grassroots citizen effort and corporate behemoths bent on imposing their will. Citizens on both sides of the issue have contributed money, of course. But those sums are dwarfed by the firehose streams of cash delivered to the measure’s opponents by corporations eager to make their mark. A quick look at the numbers, shown in the diagram below, reveals the impact of this money, with large individual contributions by companies, and small contributions by citizens.


Land-use struggles are not new in Santa Monica. In 2008, Measure T, which proposed yearly limits on commercial construction, attracted a similar mass of corporate dollars in opposition, and they were effective in defeating the measure. In 2014, a grassroots referendum against a large project by the Hines Corporation got enough signatures to get on the ballot, and the project was cancelled by the City. What gets built, and where, are clearly very important to many residents, and to companies affected by an election’s outcome. These issues have been an on-going source of conflict in the city for two decades or more, and as time passes and elections come and go, it is evident that the City’s efforts to resolve deep tensions caused by conflicts over land uses have been, at best, ineffective.

Next week: why hasn’t City Hall been able to resolve these issues? Do political contributions by commercial interests harm the process? Is this true of other campaign issues or only those linked to land-use measures? Stay tuned.

Daniel Jansenson, for SMa.r.t.