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Pushback strong against proposed new county campaign finance law

Courtest of SLO Co
District 1 supervisor John Peschong explaining his grounds for passing a high cap at the Nov. 10 virtual board meeting.

Many in San Luis Obispo County are more than ready to forget about elections for now and focus on other matters. But there is sizable public opposition to an election-related matter now before the county board of supervisors. District 1 supervisor John Peschong is spearheading a move to allow people to donate up to $25,000 to candidates for county offices like sheriff, district attorney and the five supervisorial seats.

“$25,000...this is for local races? Wow. That is an incredibly high amount. Where did they come up with that?” said election finance expert David Gould, president of the California Political Treasurers Association and one of the authors of California’s Political Reform Act of 1974, talking about the proposed new campaign finance ordinance in SLO County.

“Money and politics is going to continue to be a tough issue for our nation and for local communities, and I fear the direction that SLO County may be going with this proposal is going to make money more of a factor, not less of a factor,” said outgoing state senator Bill Monning.

There’s currently no limit to the amount people and groups can donate to county office candidates. The state legislature wanted to change that and passed a new law in 2019 that kicks in January 1. It sets a limit to campaign contributions at just under $5,000.

But individual cities and counties across California can pass local campaign laws, and set a lower limit. If local officials don’t set their own rules, the state law is now the default, and the Fair Political Practices Commission tracks and enforces campaign limits.

A new local ordinance, poised to be finalized next week, sets a limit of $25,000, five times that of statewide limits.

“I don't like it, I think that's way too high,” Monning said. “I think the role of money in politics has resulted in fewer people participating as voters because they see money talking in their vote, being worthless and less.”

“Typically those types of things are not initiated by a board of supervisors on their own, trying to come up with a way to get around...it's done normally to limit things...what they're doing is coming up with some totally bogus,” said Gould.

Over one hundred local residents who wrote emails and made phone callsto the supervisors agree with Gould and Monning and oppose the cap amount.

“I think even in this hyper-polarized climate we're living in, one thing we can agree on is that the less big money in politics, the better for little folks in our community,” said SLO resident Virginia Roof in a phone call.

“I urge you to vote no...we [should] keep campaign finances down to what a regular person could afford,” said Mike Brown of SLO County’s COLAB. “The average citizen cannot marshall a lot of money to contribute, and the limits should reflect what the average person can provide, not huge organizations.”

“I need to know what the purpose of this is because there's no explanation that makes any sense,” said Los Osos resident Linde Owen.

“I do not want five times more glossy mailers in my mailbox that go directly to my recycle bin, I do not want five times more signage on the roads and in front of houses, I do not look forward to five times more radio advertising, TV advertising, and noise," said Owen. "It does not propel democracy to let the person with the most money put out the most advertising.”

“The ordinance itself states its goal is to ‘encourage public confidence in the political process and to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption by limiting the source and amount of contributions,’ but this would quite simply do the exact opposite,” wrote SLO resident Jennifer MacMartin. “By increasing the contribution limit, this allows elite politicians to have more power and influence in our elections, thereby solidifying the class differential already ever?present in San Luis Obispo County.”

Roof, Brown, Owen, MacMartin and many other county residents are speaking out, asking that the county limit match the state’s or even be lower, including the League of Women Voters local chapter co-president Cindy Marie Absey.

“The League's problem with this is for decades, we've supported campaign finance practices that seek to combat undue influence and to allow more candidates to compete more equitably for office, and thereby promoting citizen participation in politics,” Absey said.

Absey said with public confidence in governmental people and institutions at an all-time low, “we have to work harder than ever to restore the public's trust, and that really falls to our public officials to do that.”

“For us to see a cap of $25,000 in San Luis Obispo just seems to counter the efforts of the state and even some of the language of the ordinance itself,” Absey said.

But Supervisors Peschong, Arnold and Compton have now voted twice in favor of setting a $25,000 campaign contribution limit and they are poised to set the new cap into law.

One of Peschong’s stated reasons for the high limit is that it doesn’t apply to campaign contributors who are independent of the candidate, often known as PACs. And if PACs can accept unlimited contributions—then challenging candidates, “to be able to defend themselves, they need to be able to raise money,” Peschong said at the November 10 board meeting.

Supervisor Debbie Arnold echoed Peschong’s rationale.

“None of this prohibits individual expenditures,” Arnold said. “In other words, if you're staying away from the candidate, you can send out a lot of messages, a lot of TV commercials, et cetera. You can have all that going on and the candidate without the ability to raise enough money, to get close to being able to communicate to the voters could be a disadvantage.”

Arnold also said that a low contribution cap would bar people new to political office.

“With stricter limits, I believe it would inhibit new candidates that tried to step up, uh, the opportunity to get their message out, get their name out, have people know who they are, what they're trying to say, what they're trying to do for their jurisdictions,” Arnold said.

“That's just bull,” Gould said. “That doesn't make any sense. The federal limit on contributions is $2,800 to give [a candidate for] president of the United States!”’

The proposed $25,000 amount, said Absey, is “significantly, significantly larger than other counties that have also adopted their own caps. For instance, Sonoma County with a population of almost twice that of San Luis Obispo County has a cap of $2,500.”

Supervisor Bruce Gibson also doesn’t buy Peschong’s and Arnold’s reasoning and cast the lone no vote.

“I believe it is poor policy,” Gibson said. “The state contribution limits are more than adequate, and I believe it would improve our political process to limit the corrosive effects of even more money.”

Even Supervisor Lynn Compton questioned the high limit amount.

“I have to say I'm a little uncomfortable with the 25,000,” Compton said. “I'm a little uncomfortable with that.”

Nevertheless, along with Peschong and Arnold, Compton voted in favor of the $25,000 cap and other stipulations that give wide latitude to big fundraising for county offices.

A tangential objection to the high cap plan concerns John Peschong’s campaign consultancy company. A “full-service, strategic political consulting and public affairs firm,” of which he is a partner, Meridian Pacific manages political campaigns across California. For example, a coalition of oil and gas companies paid his firm almost three quarters of a million dollarsto run the ‘No on Measure G’ campaign, successfully defeating the anti-fracking county ballot measure in 2018. Peschong says there’s no conflict.

“I got a letter from a Mr. McEwan in Morro Bay this morning that asked me to recuse myself,” Peschong said Tuesday. “I have not, and my firm has not, done any political races in San Luis Obispo County for elected county offices for the last four years, since I've been elected, and I will not be doing any while I serve as supervisor in San Luis [Obispo County].”

“However, when he is no longer with the county, then his firm may well benefit from a $25,000 cap on campaign contributions,” said Absey.

Michael Latner is a political science professor at Cal Poly and senior fellow at the Union for Concerned Scientists.

“As someone who studies electoral rules for living, I really don't think you could come up with a worst piece of legislation in terms of protecting the integrity of these offices,” Latner said.

Latner said there definitely is a conflict of interest with Peschong authoring the proposed ordinance.

“This is John Peschong’s proposal,” Latner said. “It points to the hypocrisy—I mean, if anything, Peschong should have at least had the courage to name it the “John Peschong Investment Act,” because it really is sort of absurd to think that someone whose business it is—to consult on political campaigns—would be coming up with this kind of legislation.”

When the state campaign contribution law goes into effect in January, individual municipalities have to have their own law in effect by then to bypass the state rules.

“I don't like defaulting to the state on things, so I like the fact that we're going to do our own ordinance— It sounds like,” Compton said. “And, if we decide it's not working, then we can tweak it in the future, as long as we have something in place.”

But those opposed say there’s no need to pass these new rules, and it sets a dangerous precedent for local democracy.

“If you open up this system and you make SLO County the only county where you can buy off a campaign and purchase yourself influence in a county supervisors campaign or a DA's campaign or the sheriff's campaign, you're having the effect of just really stifling free speech.”

Another issue many have with the proposed ordinance is that it designates the county district attorney as the monitor and enforcer of campaign contributions, rather than California’s Fair Political Practices Commission. An added conflict of interest, say county residents like Teresa Heikes, because that office is subject to the proposed ordinance.

During an introduction of the new ordinance on Nov. 10, Peschong said there will be another public hearing at the Nov. 17 board meeting. The public can email comments to the county board of supervisors or staff in the meantime—something that Absey and the League of Women Voters urges.

“People can still make their voices heard and that's democracy at work,” Absey said. “If you're concerned about campaign finance limits and caps and the influence of big money in our local campaigns, this is something our citizens need to care about and get involved in now because the decision will be made within the month of November.”

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