Soft-money contributions need to be limited 

With 11 solid mayoral candidates, it looks like this will be the most expensive election campaign in The City’s history. More than $10 million in contributions and public financing may be spent on ads, fliers and mailers before the ballots are counted in November.

While that is a welcome infusion into the local economy, it may be matched or even dwarfed by the so-called “soft money” spending by various interest groups. From unions to political action committees to wealthy donors to corporations such as PG&E, millions of dollars flow through our election cycle each year, much of it flooding in the week before the election.

As we reported last week, $1.3 million in soft money was spent for or against candidates in last November’s Board of Supervisors elections. Supervisor Mark Farrell won office with help from an independent expenditure committee that spent $213,000, two-thirds of it coming from one real estate investor.

Like the candidates, independent expenditure committees are required to report to the Ethics Commission how much they raise and spend as well as abiding by myriad disclosure and disclaimer rules.

But the big difference is that there are few limits and regulations on soft-money contributions. The candidates are limited to collecting no more than $500 per donor, and have a $1.4 million spending cap if they receive public financing.

This potentially tilts the playing field in favor of mostly anonymous, wealthy special interests that thwart the intent of San Francisco’s Campaign Finance Reform Ordinance.

The 23,825-word ordinance’s contribution limits, public financing and scores of requirements are designed to prevent that. But limits on candidates are useless if third-party spending generally goes unchecked.

“Inherent to the high cost of election campaigning is the problem of improper influence, real or potential, exercised by campaign contributors over elected officials,” the ordinance states.

“The amount of money raised by many candidates and committees supporting or opposing candidates also erodes public confidence in local officials by creating the appearance that elected officials may be unduly influenced by contributors who support their campaigns or oppose their opponents’ campaigns.”

The Ethics Commission is planning to streamline the ordinance, but it will retain the $500 per person limit to candidates while not addressing the unlimited soft-money contributions. It may be that limiting soft money would run into legal challenges contending an abridgement of free-speech rights. If so, the same argument could be made for limiting hard-money contributions to candidates.

However it’s done, the playing field should be level if the public is to have confidence in the electoral process. Will Rogers once joked, “We have the best Congress money can buy.” That’s a funny line, but it’s the special interests that are laughing all the way to the bank.

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