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Campaign contribution limits in the spotlight as elections near

REGION — The Escondido City Council has been discussing drastically lowering the city’s campaign contribution limits in recent months as the upcoming elections have prompted an interest in cities with the highest and lowest contribution limits in the county.

When it comes to campaign contributions, five cities in the county have set no local limits, defaulting to a recent state law that limits campaign contributions to $4,700. These cities are Carlsbad, El Cajon, Imperial Beach, National City and Oceanside.

Other cities in the county range from $100 to $1,090. Of cities with limits, Escondido is one of the highest, with parties able to donate up to $4,300 to a City Council or mayoral candidate.

According to a report by Escondido city staff, San Diego sets contribution limits at no more than $600 for council candidates and $1,150 for mayor/city attorney. Chula Vista has a $350 limit. Santee has a $700 limit, Vista is at $300, Encinitas and San Marcos are at $250, Solana Beach and Poway are at $100, and Lemon Grove has a $1,000 limit.

Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara, who made a campaign promise to lower contribution limits during his 2018 run for mayor, told The Coast News that he thinks the limit is too high and that there should also be a slightly higher limit for mayoral candidates than City Council candidates.

“A concerned citizen who wants to run probably doesn’t have the same name recognition as an incumbent does, but both still have to raise thousands and thousands of dollars,” McNamara said. “There’s a fairness issue there. I just think that what we have is too high and it needs to be lowered.”

The City of San Marcos, on the other hand, has one of the lowest contribution limits in the county at $250.

San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones told The Coast News that, though she doesn’t support high contribution limits, there has to be a balance.

“At $250, you have to work a lot harder and contact a lot more people to get them to donate,” Jones said. “I think it puts individuals at a disadvantage and it probably deters more people from running. It’s important to have as much participation as possible, but it’s hard to do that if people can’t fund their own campaign.”

In some cities, like San Marcos, if someone donates to a candidate’s campaign, that candidate may not vote on the donor’s project for a year before and a year after the donation.

It’s a concept that Escondido is also taking into consideration after residents, and the Sierra Club, recently expressed concerns that three City Council candidates received donations of $4,300 from Safari Highlands LLC, proponents of the controversial Harvest Hills development.

“Developers are allowed to give money, but can they give money right before or right after an important vote? Is that the right signal to send? Or would we be denying that entity its rights?” McNamara said. “We need to find the balance between an entity’s rights to donate money, but at the same time making sure they aren’t having too much influence.”

McNamara added that the City Council will be working to lower contribution limits before the 2022 elections.