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The City of San Diego Ethics Commission will consider a report from UC San Diego political science associate professor Thad Kousser (pictured) on the implications of limiting political parties’ contributions to local races at a meeting this Thursday.

Kousser’s report, which stops short of making specific recommendations, explores potential benefits and detriments that could arise from placing an arbitrary cap on the amount of cash a political party could directly inject into a city election, as well as legal challenges that could arise from such a move. Earlier this year, a judge struck down $1000 per candidate, per election limits the city had attempted to impose in 2010.

Though California state law officially bans partisanship in local races, candidates are regardless frequently open concerning their party affiliation and garner significant benefits from official Democratic or Republican endorsement.

Under current law, parties have two ways in addition to directly funding candidates to affect elections. First, they are allowed an unlimited communications budget for the purpose of contacting registered members of their party in order to promote endorsed candidates.

Also, as a result of the controversial Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, they can spend an unlimited sum on behalf of candidates, as long as such spending is not directly coordinated through the candidate or the candidate’s campaign.

Kousser first identifies reasons to keep the current system of unlimited party contributions to a candidate. Several arguments are cited, including suggestions that parties tend to spend heavily in closely contested elections, and in order to win seats for those who are already generally aligned with their party’s goals.

This form of spending is not expected to create corruption in the same way that money from a special interest such as a corporation or labor union could be spent with the expectation of influencing a specific vote or series of votes once the official is in office.

Further, party spending can prop up non-incumbent candidates, who may have less name recognition and attendant fund-raising abilities. Such activity could actually make races more competitive.

Finally, allowing unlimited party contributions to a candidate can serve to increase transparency in the funding process. Were donors not allowed to contribute freely directly as Republicans or Democrats, many would likely form political action committees with vague or misleading names in order to funnel money to candidates.

When money comes from a “name brand” political party, Kousser says, voters are more likely to know what that money says about a candidate than if, for example, funding were to come from a group with a name such as “San Diegans for Healthy Neighborhoods and a Strong Economy.”

On the flip side, Kousser also says that through their rights to member communications and independent expenditure, parties already have plenty of opportunity to promote their candidates of choice, even if spending caps on campaigns themselves were enacted.

Reversing course on the argument that political parties don’t necessarily influence individual votes, Kousser says that while they may not do so to the extent of a private corporation or special interest group, parties may nonetheless be able to control a candidate’s actions once in office. Officials might be induced to “toe the party line,” rather than governing from the center or according to individual principles, if they feel they’re putting their funding for future elections at risk.

Kousser goes on to point out that party activists, rather than the general public, are both responsible for handing out party endorsements and tend to be much more politically polarized than the electorate (as well as their fellow party members) in general. By awarding a significant amount of money to their chosen candidates, more moderate candidates tend to be driven away from seeking office in favor of those most willing to represent party platforms at their most extreme.

The report provides a comparison of 14 other cities in the U.S., three of which have no campaign funding limits and 11 which have implemented some restrictions on citywide or district-level races. Such limits are as small as $350 in Austin, TX and as large as $50,000 in Jacksonville, FL.

The average caps are about $9,200 per election cycle or, if measured based on per capita spending, suggest a $11,000 cap would put San Diego at the mean spending limit. Median spending, however, is much lower, as Jacksonville’s cap, $38,500 higher than the next-highest city, skews the mean considerably.

Another suggestion is that citywide races be viewed, and capped, differently from district races, given the much larger scope of a campaign conducted throughout the city. Kousser notes that $4.7 million was spent between seven candidates in the 2005 special mayoral election, while a hotly contested race for the city council’s 2nd district at the same time saw 11 candidates spend a total of only $430,000.

If the committee chooses to move forward with imposing caps, there are several questions of legality that will have to be addressed, as the previous rejection of spending limits in San Diego and a Supreme Court decision overturning similar limits in Vermont has proven.

At issue are questions of whether spending caps would be set so low as to restrict the freedom of speech of the parties – San Diego’s law was overturned because parties were “only” allowed to spend twice as much on campaigns as individual donors ($1000 vs. $500). Also questioned is whether such limits would serve to restrict challengers from running effective campaigns against incumbents.

It has not yet been determined whether the ethics committee will take action following discussion on the report.

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