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The Need For Reasonable Limits On Political Party Candidate Donations

Guest Commentary
by Supervisor Ron Roberts

Former state Republican Party chair Ron Nehring rightly states that “San Diego voters have a right to know who is trying to influence our local elections.” (Commentary, U-T San Diego, January 29, 2014).  But his prescription for accomplishing that – allowing unlimited political contributions to be funneled through political parties directly to local candidates – does not accomplish this objective.

The San Diego City Council recognized this fact nineteen months ago when they adopted caps on contributions from political parties directly to City candidates.  They were responding to over $1.3 million in campaign contributions passed through political parties to City candidates after a federal judge threw out the City’s prohibition on such contributions.  The resulting free-for-all effectively circumvented the City’s then-$550 limit on individual contributions.  In June 2013, the city council established a $10,000 limit on party contributions to city council candidates and a $20,000 limit on contributions to citywide candidates.  Republicans on the city council, led by then-Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, argued for even lower limits of $3,000 for city council candidates and $12,000 for citywide candidates.

Why are such limits in the public interest?  Under both City and County campaign finance ordinances, contributions to candidates are capped in order to limit undue influence by big donors.  After a federal judge threw out the City’s prohibition on organizational contributions, individuals and interest groups poured money into the political parties to circumvent these limits and support their endorsed candidates.  The Republican and Democratic parties funneled more than $1 million directly into the mayoral campaigns of Carl DeMaio and Bob Filner in 2012.  The candidates knew who the individuals and organizations were that provided these funds, but the public had no way of connecting the dots between large contributions to the parties and the money sent by the parties directly to the candidates. The parties are not required to disclose which of their many hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions were intended for specific candidate campaigns.

Councilmember Faulconer said it best when, prior to voting in support of the City’s caps, he said, “I do support and have always supported campaign contribution limits.  I think they work.  I think they’re important and I think why we’re here today is the question of how do you make them effective.”

The Board of Supervisors’ decision to establish such caps is in line with a similar decision by the City of San Diego in 2013, and preserves the integrity of the County’s long-standing limits on contributions to candidate campaigns.  I am surprised and disappointed that Mr. Nehring chose to criticize the County for taking this action in the public interest.  San Diego County will now join the City of San Diego in closing this major campaign finance loophole.

Supervisor Ron Roberts represents the Fourth District on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

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