The "matching funds" program in the city of Los Angeles was designed to encourage more competitive political races. Candidates who qualify for the program and who agree to cap their total campaign spending receive a 2-to-1 match for contributions they raise from individual donors in the first round of voting and 4 to 1 in the second. The city has already doled out $5.3 million this year to candidates for city offices under the program; $2.5 million of that amount has gone to candidates for mayor.
But matching funds are being swamped by rapidly increasing "independent" expenditures — money spent on a candidate's behalf but not given directly to or coordinated with the candidate's campaign. Independent expenditures have reached an all-time high in this year's city elections, with more than $7.8 million spent so far by outside groups on the combined city and school board races. That's more than was spent independently in both the first and second rounds of the municipal elections in 2011.
Tempting though it is to blame the high level of independent spending on the U.S. Supreme Court's much-criticized Citizens United ruling, it's not the culprit. Independent expenditures have long been allowed under both federal law and local election rules, and have for years been a mainstay of Los Angeles politics. Labor is a leading practitioner, but such expenditures have also been made by Indian tribes, conservative interests and Hollywood executives, among others.
What's dismaying about the current campaigns is not the fact of these expenditures but rather their magnitude. In this election, the amounts not only have overtaken the city's matching funds, reducing the efficacy of that program, but also have in some races rivaled or exceeded the total funds raised by candidates. In the mayor's race, for instance, Kevin James has raised just $383,000 — but has benefited from independent expenditures on his behalf of roughly twice that much. Controller Wendy Greuel has benefited from nearly $2.5 million, much of it from organized labor.
The numbers are smaller but the effects even greater in the school board races. There, candidates have raised relatively little, but outside interests — led by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who contributed $1 million of his own money to reform candidates in Los Angeles — have spent lavishly. More than 80% of the money spent in the school elections so far has come from sources other than the candidates' fundraising.
None of this violates any law or rule, but such significant spending by individuals and interests undermines this city's attempts to build a fairer campaign finance system. It's always hard to get elected officials to revisit these rules — by definition, those who win are those who've mastered them — but the leading candidates for mayor should pledge themselves to a comprehensive review of the city's election laws once this campaign is behind us.