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Arizona public financing case raises San Francisco election issues

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Right now, Arizona’s robust system of public financing for political campaigns is on trial before the United States Supreme Court. And so is San Francisco’s.

Oral arguments in the case of McComish v. Bennett were heard Monday and, while we won’t see a ruling for several months (June at the latest) it was clear from the attitude of the justices that change is in the wind. According to election law expert Kevin Heneghan of The Sutton Law Firm, “It seems highly likely that the Supreme Court will strike down the Arizona public financing system. Because the Arizona and San Francisco systems are so similar, San Francisco may be forced to make some significant changes to its public financing system as a result of this case.”

At issue in the McComish case is whether Arizona’s practice of doling out public funds to candidates whenever opposition forces raise a certain amount is unconstitutional. Take the example of John McComish, a traditional, privately financed candidate who ran for the Arizona House of Representatives in 2008 and faced three opponents in the Republican primary race.

Because Arizona gives money to publicly financed candidates whenever a traditional candidate raises funds over a certain “spending limit,” for every one dollar he raised for his own campaign above that spending limit, he was effectively raising three dollars for his opposition. Thus, McComish argues, he was compelled to forgo contributions and campaign activities to stay at or near the spending limits — which was violation of his First Amendment right to free speech.

In San Francisco, we have a similar system, which explains why our City Attorney’s Office filed a legal brief with the Supreme Court supporting the Arizona law.

Here, candidates who qualify for public financing receive an initial grant and get matching funds for every dollar he or she raises thereafter. Initially, there is a spending cap (so a person can’t get matching funds for infinite amounts of money), but when spending by a candidate’s opposition exceeds that candidate’s spending cap, the cap is adjusted upward.

As the brief states, “Once the city raises a candidate’s spending cap, the candidate becomes eligible to collect additional private contributions and receive additional matching funds from the city on a dollar-for-dollar basis.”

To put it a different way: if you like Candidate A and oppose Candidate B, if Candidate B has reached the spending cap, every dollar spent to support Candidate A is enabling Candidate B to raise another dollar and get a matching dollar from The City. While campaign spending in local races is at a historical high, this scheme theoretically deters people from supporting their candidate of choice for fear of assisting the opposition.

The many defenders of Arizona’s public financing law (and ours) point out that it prevents corruption by promoting candidates who are not beholden to special interests and is meant to “level the playing field” so that all candidates can be heard. But the court has ruled in the past that leveling the playing field doesn’t justify contribution restrictions. With the exception of Elena Kagan, the justices made no effort to hide their preference for McComish’s argument.

Predicting the ruling in any Supreme Court case is impossible, but if McComish wins, Arizona may have delivered the ultimate “matching contribution” — paving the way for a twin ruling that our system is unconstitutional.

Regional transportation board might put SF in the back seat

Call your representatives in Sacramento, because San Francisco is about to get swindled. The agency that oversees planning and funding for regional transportation projects is trying to get bigger and thereby shrink San Francisco’s influence.

According to its website, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission is “the transportation planning, coordinating and financing agency for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area.” (Notice the reference to our fair city right in the “About MTC” statement!) Created in 1970, these days the commission plays a role in financing for the Transbay Transit Center, Doyle Drive and even the Central Subway project.

The commission has 19 members; the five most populous counties (including San Francisco) each get two representatives and the remaining four counties each get one representative. The other five commission members represent regional interests.

But all that might change if Assembly Bill 57 is passed. That law, which came from the commission itself, would give additional seats to Oakland and San Jose — each of which is already represented by two county representatives. In other words: Alameda County would have two regular seats plus a third seat for an Oakland-specific representative. Same for Santa Clara County and San Jose. And San Francisco? We would be left with two measly representatives on a diluted 21-member commission.

Back in February, Supervisor Scott Wiener sponsored a resolution denouncing the change in commission membership, which passed unanimously. It stated, “San Francisco is the destination for upwards of 500,000 commuters on weekdays, nearly half the population of San Jose and nearly the population of Oakland.”

Rightfully, we have to wonder how on Earth this proposal got the commission’s blessing. For starters, San Francisco is only represented by one commission member right now, Jon Rubin, who was appointed by Willie Brown in 1995 and has been there ever since. He’s a transit expert, but he’s also the president of the Peninsula Coalition, an organization located in South San Francisco that is dedicated to sustainable transportation and growth in the peninsula region.

When the commission voted on the proposal back in January, Rubin’s embarrassingly meek opposition sounded like an apology for following the orders of new mayor Ed Lee. Now we have to rely on the wisdom of our state government to prevent this change. (We are doomed.)

In the meantime, the Board of Supervisors needs to get it together and appoint that second member to commission. We need a fighter.