CITY HALL — The mix of money and politics can create a toxic brew, and local politicians are trying to pass the poisoned cup as they debate the possibility of raising campaign contribution limits for Santa Monica elections.

The argument centers around a proposal brought by the City Attorney’s Office in March that would raise the amount a person can give to a local candidate from the current $250 to $400.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie raised the issue in response to court decisions that she felt might open Santa Monica up to litigation for keeping the contribution limit relatively low.

The council also needed to change its ordinance to reflect the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission, which allowed any individual or corporation to contribute an unlimited amount to independent expenditure campaigns, or campaigns not controlled directly by a given candidate.

Proponents of the increase contest that the $250 limit, not changed since 1992, would now be worth $400 as a result of inflation, and in that case, raising the limit would actually keep it equal to the intended amount.

Without the increase, candidates also lose out on funding right when independent expenditure campaigns can really start pumping money into campaigns, proponents say.

On the other side of the fence are those that feel that by increasing transparency and forcing independent expenditure campaigns to reveal their contributors, good public policy can take the teeth out of the “shadowy” independent campaigns.

If that happens, raising the contribution limits would open the door to an influx of money from business interests, which can afford to meet the higher contribution limits where the average voter may not.

The two sides aired their views at the May 10 City Council meeting, personified by Councilmember Bobby Shriver for the increase, and Councilmember Kevin McKeown against it.

Shriver pointed out that people with real estate interests gave tens of thousands of dollars to independent expenditure campaigns to use against candidates through mailers and advertising.

“If money wants to get into politics, it will get in,” Shriver said. “Why wouldn’t you give an individual some capacity to be heard at the same volume as the IEs are heard?”

McKeown pointed out that money isn’t everything — in his 2006 campaign, he was outspent by a factor of 20 and still managed to retain his seat.

“If I felt that my getting more money would help, I guess my self-interest would bring me there, but I don’t think it serves the community to keep opening the floodgate wider and wider because the people who live here in Santa Monica aren’t all doing that great,” McKeown said. “On the other hand, special interests give what seems to be a good investment to them.”

Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) — which controls one of the main independent expenditure campaigns alongside the education IE, police and fire unions, and the hospitality industry — “invested” $100,000 in the 2006 campaign, Shriver noted.

“Although you might have been outspent, you were endorsed by SMRR, therefore all that mail went to your benefit,” Shriver said.

Shriver, who bills himself as a primarily self-funded candidate, and Bob Holbrook are the only two councilmembers that SMRR did not back in their council runs.

Jessica Levinson, director of political reform at the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, said that the idea of calling groups like SMRR fully independent of the candidates they endorse “troubling.”

“It strains reality,” Levinson said. “By definition, those are people that are interested in the outcome of races who know candidates or advisors or may have strong ties to candidates or advisors. I think, in reality, expenditures by independent groups are made by people that know candidates and campaigns.”

In the absence of council members Pam O’Connor and Holbrook, the City Council chose to put off a final decision on the matter until all council members were present.

To the eyes of the outside world, the Santa Monica conflagration is all smoke and little fire.

The question about raising the campaign contribution limits should focus on two things, said Paul S. Ryan, an attorney with the Washington D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center.

First, does the proposed $150 increase mean that a donor that gives the maximum gets extra pull with the candidate, like a greater tendency to answer the phone or discuss issues?

Second, without the increase, can a candidate mount a viable campaign, or is it too expensive to get the message out?

Neither situation seemed likely if the limit went to $400, Ryan said.

“In my view, as someone who’s made a career of fighting for sensible dollars in political campaigns, [the council] may want to invest [its] energy in other battles,” Ryan said.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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