New Public Financing Program Implemented in District 15 Race

Map detail of Council District 15

Candidates vying to be the next city council person from District 15 are, well, off and running. The special election will fill the seat vacated by now-Congresswoman Janice Hahn.

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Hahn also ran in a special election. In Hahn's case she successfully ran to fill the seat vacated by former-Congresswoman Jane Harmon. Welcome to the musical chairs of Los Angeles politics. If there is a vacant seat, there will be a special election that may create a domino effect of vacancies.

So back to the District 15 race. This is the first election held in Los Angeles after the Supreme Court's June 2011 decision in Arizona Free Enterprise Club's Freedom Club PAC, et al. v. Bennett. There the court invalidated so-called "trigger" or "rescue" funds that provided publicly financed candidates with additional public funds in the face of privately financed opponents who spent over a threshold amount. (Many "trigger" funds provisions also provided additional funds to publicly financed candidates when independent expenditures groups spent over a threshold amount). The court found that those laws violated the First Amendment by chilling the speech of privately financed candidates and independent expenditure groups, who would not want to spend over the threshold amounts that triggered the receipt of rescue funds.

Los Angeles' public campaign financing law has trigger funds provisions similar to those recently struck down by the Supreme Court. However, Los Angeles has found at least a temporary fix to that problem for the November 8 special election. Previously in Los Angeles qualified candidates could receive a 1-to-1 of public funds based on private contributions of up to $250 (e.g., based on a contribution of $100, a qualified candidate could receive $100 in public funds). Under Los Angeles' trigger funds provision, publicly financed candidates could become eligible to (among other things) receive a 3-to-1 match if a privately financed opponent and/or independent expenditure group spent over a threshold amount. However, in the wake of the Arizona Free Enterprise decision, Los Angeles will now provide all candidates with a 3-to-1 match of public to private funds on contributions of up to $250.

Some are decrying the use of public funds for candidates at a time when the city is hurting for money. Others say public financing programs pay off in spades by allowing qualified candidates -- regardless of their personal wealth or access to big donors -- to competitively run for office, which can in turn lead to public officials who make decisions based on the needs of their constituents, not their donors.

Right now Angelenos can watch the increasingly competitive race in District 15 and judge for themselves. Because there are so many candidates, it is highly likely that no one will get more than 50% of the vote (the threshold required to avoid a runoff election). The runoff will be held on January 17th.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government in Los Angeles every week. She is a Visiting Professor at Loyola Law School.

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