CARLSBAD — New campaign contribution limits were approved by the City Council during its April 6 meeting, setting lower limits for individual contributions.
Councilwoman Cori Schumacher was able to pass her proposal of $900 for council member races and $3,100 for mayor, city treasurer and clerk. Councilwoman Priya Bhat-Patel, though, said the numbers should be even lower as a way to encourage individuals to run for office without having to ask for large sums of money during fundraising. Both Schumacher and Bhat-Patel said it will provide more transparency to the process.
However, Mayor Matt Hall said putting lower restrictions on donations will only encourage more money to be funneled through political action committees (PAC) and super PACs, which do not have the same reporting requirements as candidates and encourage more “dark money,” which is untraceable.
“The contribution limits I’ve put forward is reflective of the county,” Schumacher said. “The $10,000 cap on personal loan is my attempt to find middle ground.”
Prior to Jan. 1, the city had followed state law on its campaign donations and had no limits, although the law allows municipalities to set their own limits.
Councilman Keith Blackburn, who sits on the Carlsbad Municipal Code and City Council Policy Update subcommittee, proposed $4,900 limits across the board, similar to state races, and in line with Assembly Bill 571, which was enacted on Jan. 1.
Hall said lower limits will also entice more funneled through independent expenditures, which do not require disclosing the source of the money. Hall said putting lower limits won’t limit expenditures, noting groups, such as labor unions, will do it through their own independent expenditures.
“In campaigns, people are going to contribute whatever they feel reasonable in order to elect their elected official,” he said. “When you have no limits, you will have a more honest election than when you have the most restrictive of campaigns. As long as I’ve been in politics, I’ve always put a $5,000 limit on mine. You can see all the business entities and developer entities.”
Meanwhile, several residents spoke against the limits, with Tracy Carmichael, who ran twice for the District 1 seat on the City Council, saying the council should have formed a resident committee to address campaign finance. Another, Sherry Sanders, called for Schumacher to recuse herself, saying there was a conflict of interest due to a potential recall effort.
Another speaker said lower limits increase transparency and reduce the likelihood of corruption.
Bhat-Patel called for lowering the limits to $500 per district race and $1,000 for each citywide office.
“Having lower limits allows for more equity,” she said. “I know that was the intent for why we’re having limits anyway.”
With the new policies in place, there are no contribution limits for a candidate-controlled committee formed to oppose a recall, according to Deputy City Attorney Cindie McMahon.
McMahon said candidates may transfer funds from one candidate-controlled committee to another. The city cannot limit the personal funds of a candidate spent or donated to their campaign.
AB 571 allows a candidate to loan to their own campaign up to $100,000, although the council approved $10,000 for Carlsbad.
McMahon said the reason for campaign finance reform was to “regulate to protect against quid prop quo, or ‘pay-to-play’ or the appearance of such an arrangement.”
Dark money has exploded in scale since the Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, there was more than $1 billion in dark money in the 2020 federal cycle.
According to CRP, $514 million of dark money was directed to Democrats and about $200 million to Republicans. Democrats, though, are pushing to pass the For the People Act, which would require any group spending more than $10,000 on political ads to disclose all donors who gave $10,000 or more, according to the CRP.