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Councilman Pushes For Campaigns To Be Fully Financed By Public Funds

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Mike Bonin (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
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On Tuesday, Los Angeles Councilmember Mike Bonin unveiled his plans for "Clean Money," a series of proposals that include a campaign financing system that would allow local political campaigns to tap into public funds, rather than rely on private donations. Bonin wants the proposals to be included on the 2018 ballot.

Under the public funding system, a candidate would first have to show that the campaign is a viable one. The candidate would need to collect a number of signatures from constituents, and raise a number of low-level donations from a pool of local donors. Once this is done, the candidate would then have to promise to forgo all private donations thereafter, and to refrain from "special interest money," according to a document obtained by City News Service.

As to how much the low-level donations can be, and how many donors the candidate would need, Bonin's office is still working with the city's Ethics Commission to determine what would be reasonable, David Graham-Caso, communications director for Bonin, told LAist.

Once all that is in place, the candidate can then tap into public funds to pay for a campaign. As noted at the L.A. Times, the city already has a public matching funds system that allows candidates to cull from taxpayer money. City council candidates, for example, can get up to $225,000 in public funds. Bonin's proposal, on the other hand, would do without the fund-matching system, opting instead to fully fund a campaign once it has been deemed valid.

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This system is voluntary, according to the Times. So, if you still want to run a privately-financed campaign, you still can. Though, once you go down Bonin's proposed route, you'd have to forfeit the opportunity to obtain private donations.

Bonin said today in a release that his office has asked the City’s Legislative Analyst and City Administrative Officer to determine how much a public-financed election would cost—according to City News Service, Bonin's campaign for re-election on March 7 has raised more than $413,000. The analyst has also been asked to determine a "dedicated funding source." Bonin suggests that the money can come from L.A. development fees, as well a severance tax on oil and gas extraction.

As Graham-Caso tells LAist, the proposal is to straighten and restore faith in local political campaigns. "There's the question of whether there's a perception of corruption, or whether that's the reality. This proposal addresses both," said Graham-Caso. "If it's a matter of perception, this lets constituents know that the decision-making is unaffected by the money. This removes the doubt." Graham-Caso also says that the system would allow candidates to engage more with constituents, rather than spending most of their time on the fund-raising circuit.

"Public financing of elections will help make our city work better because the best candidates will win elections," said Bonin in a release. "Right now, money plays too large a role in our political process and this is one way to right that wrong and show what is possible when we come together to make our democracy more democratic.”

The "Clean Money" package had its beginnings back in 2005, when Bonin and then-councilmember Bill Rosendahl (Bonin was his chief of staff) laid out the foundations for the proposals. It's especially apropos now, however, as money continues to flow into L.A., and development runs rampant across Los Angeles.

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In these conditions, allegations of impropriety crop up easily. This is perhaps best reflected in the ongoing case of the Sea Breeze development in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood near Torrance. In October, the L.A. Times reported that a number of people with ties to the developer—Samuel Leung—had given sizable donations to various L.A.-area politicians. This raised a number of questions. For one thing, many of the donors seemed to be unaware of their own donations, suggesting they may have been used as a conduit to channel in money. Also, the Sea Breeze project had required "spot-zoning" to move the development along. The proposed area for the apartment complex was zoned for industrial purposes. As such, the L.A. city council had to rezone the site for residential developments.