Half of a very good idea
The best two things that could happen in American politics would be eliminating the corporate and labor union campaign contributions that are the most significant sources of corruption in government.
U.S. Supreme Court decisions hold donations by these wealthy special interests are protected by the Constitution's free speech guarantees. That means anyone wanting to diminish their political influence must pursue something other than a ban or even a cap on special interest spending.
In California last year, that effort took the form of an Assembly bill that would have forced corporations to report all their political activities and spending to shareholders, who could then have nixed a proportionate amount of that spending equal to their ownership stakes.
If a shareholder owned 1 percent of all stock in the Exxon-Mobil oil company, he or she could demand the company cut its political spending by 1 percent.
In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried something similar with labor unions via Proposition 75, a ballot initiative that would have allowed public employee union members to opt out of letting their dues be used for political contributions.
"There's a fundamental unfairness in California," went the ballot argument for the measure, which failed. "Hundreds of thousands of public employee union members are forced to contribute their hard-earned money to political candidates or issues they may oppose."
There was truth to that argument, but it lacked balance. The obvious aim of Proposition 75 was to cut the influence of the California Teachers Association and other public employee unions that are leading contributors to Democratic candidates.
But this column and others argued in 2005 it would be unfair to cut union influence while leaving corporations unfettered.
Former Democratic Assemblyman Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara, a defeated candidate for attorney general last year, picked up on that contention with the proposal to let shareholders cut corporate contributions. Given the fact that corporations provide a large part of Republican campaign funds in California, including support for numerous independent expenditure committees, the presumption was that the Democratic-controlled Legislature would pass this easily.
But it died in the state Senate's Banking and Finance Committee, where four Democrats voted for the measure, when five votes were needed to move it along.
If Californians are really interested in cleaning up this state's politics and ending what many believe is governmental dysfunction, measures like both Proposition 75 and Nava's defeated measure will be needed.
It would be virtually impossible to put both union member and shareholder vetoes of using their money for politics into a single ballot initiative because of laws that require propositions to cover only one subject area each. But there's nothing to prevent legislators from writing and passing companion bills accomplishing both aims.