Court ruling upholds ban on public funding of political campaigns

Jon Coupal
President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association

It’s no secret that California, perhaps America’s most progressive state, is controlled by a political establishment openly hostile to the interests of taxpayers. Taxpayer victories over the state’s liberal power structure are rare, but they do happen.

Last week, taxpayers prevailed in a long running lawsuit involving public funding for political campaigns. The dispute began in 2016 when the Legislature passed, and the governor signed, Senate Bill 1107, which purported to amend a part of the Political Reform Act of 1974.

The Act itself was previously amended in 1988 by Proposition 73, an initiative measure that expressly prohibited public funding of political campaigns. SB1107 attempted to reverse the ban by permitting public funding of political campaigns under certain circumstances.

There was just one problem: Initiative statutes, laws that are approved by voters, cannot be amended by the California Legislature except by a vote of the people or under circumstances permitted by the initiative itself.

The SB1107 litigation is important because of the underlying policies involved. California voters don’t like public funding of campaigns – and for good reason. First, taxpayers expect that their tax dollars will go to basic public services such as education, transportation and public safety. 

There is something unseemly about giving money to government only to be transferred to private individuals so that they can advance their own political careers. Second, giving taxpayer dollars to candidates or causes with which one disagrees raises First Amendment concerns. 

Third, taxpayers have no control over how the funds are spent, including for misleading or even obscene campaign ads.

Californians have left no doubt about their views on public financing of political campaigns.

In 2006, Proposition 89 appeared on the ballot, a measure that would have permitted such funding. Voters crushed Prop. 89 by a stunning 74% to 26% margin. Because SB1107 was so clearly contrary to the letter and spirit of the Act, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and former state Sen. Quentin Kopp, who was the author of Proposition 73, challenged the 2016 law as an improper legislative amendment of a voter initiative. Taxpayers prevailed in the trial court, which invalidated SB1107 and stopped it from going into effect.

However, losing defendants Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Fair Political Practices Commission appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal. They argued that the trial court, in finding that SB1107 conflicted with the Act, misconstrued its purposes. They asserted that the trial court was wrong to find that a primary purpose of the Act was to ban public financing of political campaigns. They asserted that SB1107, by permitting public funding of political campaigns, actually furthers the more general purposes of the Act — to shrink the influence of large donors and reduce campaign spending.

But the Court of Appeal would have none of that, finding that SB1107 directly conflicts with a primary purpose and mandate of the Act, as amended by subsequent voter initiatives, to prohibit public funding of political campaigns. Accordingly, it found that the legislation does not further the purposes of the Act, a requirement for its amendment by the legislature.

In enacting Proposition 73, California voters decided to prohibit taxpayer dollars from being used as political slush funds. If politicians want to change that, they must take the issue back to voters. But after several initiatives reaffirming the will of Californians to ban taxpayer funding, it’s pretty obvious why political elites won’t try. 

Originally published by the Southern California News Group.

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