Reforming Campaign Finance Reform 

San Francisco has some of the strongest campaign finance laws in the country. And rightly so — our citizens are entitled to know who is trying to influence their votes, or the votes of their elected representatives.

In conjunction with state law, and among many other provisions, our local campaign finance regime establishes contribution limits, requires candidates to disclose their contributions and ensures advertisements disclose their funding source(s). The net result, ideally, is a more transparent and accountable political process.

Unfortunately, though, San Francisco’s campaign finance laws are not a single, streamlined construct. They are the product of decades of differing and sometimes overlapping efforts, which often differ and overlap with state laws. What we are left with is an immense patchwork of regulations, whose complexity can undermine the very goal of transparency and accountability we seek to achieve.

For example, under the current Campaign Finance Reform Ordinance (CFRO), one must consult five different sections of the law to find all of the different disclaimer requirements for campaign advertisements. An independent group, such as a neighborhood political club, can be required to file two different forms at two different times just to report a single campaign mailer. This complexity makes it harder for the average voter to assess the information being disclosed, and it can send a troubling message to smaller organizations and grass-roots candidates: Don’t bother getting involved.

You should not need a legal team to file campaign reports, nor a law degree to understand them. The CFRO should promote inclusion, not discourage neighborhood groups from participating, or make good people reluctant to run for office. That is why we introduced legislation on Tuesday to improve campaign finance laws.

Our legislation will bring the CFRO up to date with the latest changes in state law, help simplify and improve reporting and disclaimer requirements, and create compliance with recent court rulings.

First, there are a host of third-party committees (groups not directly affiliated with a candidate) that spend money on elections, anyone from the firefighters union to the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club. It is critical for voters to have disclosures about the campaign activities of these committees, particularly the cost and content of campaign advertisements, whether paper mailers, videos, or polls.

Today, much of this reporting is required separately by the state and City, a duplicative structure that can confuse voters and smaller community groups. Our legislation combines requirements so all reporting is done simultaneously and conveyed to voters in a more streamlined, user-friendly format. It also requires the reporting of member communications by unions, trade associations, etc.; creates a single reporting threshold for ads costing $1,000 or more; adds a 24-hour reporting deadline for ads distributed within the 90 days prior to an election; and requires groups to submit copies of their ads to the Ethics Commission.

Second, the legislation clarifies the disclaimer requirements for campaign ads and polls i.e. the “paid for by” portion that helps voters understand who is actually footing the bill. We are setting clear standards for things such as a readable font size and understandable spoken disclaimers in radio, television, and web advertising.

Lastly, the legislation brings our laws into compliance with recent court decisions by removing some contribution limits. It eliminates the cap on an individual’s total contributions in an election, which has been unenforced since the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC opinion in 2014, as well as the limit on contributions to PACs, which has been unenforced since the District Court enjoined enforcement in 2007.

While Campaign Finance laws will always be a work-in-progress, and we have other improvements planned, this set of changes to the law is an important step. Our legislation will make information more accessible to the public and make compliance easier, particularly for grass-roots candidates and neighborhood groups.

The Ethics Commission unanimously supported this legislation in January. We look forward to its consideration at the Board of Supervisors, in the hope it may be in effect for the 2015 election cycle.

London Breed is the president of the Board of Supervisors. John St. Croix is the executive director of the Ethics Commission.
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