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Proposed campaign cap would test ASSU constitution

The ASSU Undergraduate Senate will continue debate Tuesday on a much-anticipated campaign finance bill authored by Executives Angelina Cardona ’11 and Kelsei Wharton ’12. The bill, with the potential to reform the entire executive campaign process, would set executive-campaign spending caps and decrease the amount of funds offered through public financing if it can overcome concerns about enforcement and constitutionality.

The bill would set spending caps at $750 for publicly financed slates, granting up to $500 of ASSU funds per slate, and $1,000 for slates spending their own money. The executives would allocate $3,000 of their budget to campaign expenses, to be split evenly between publicly financed slates. Currently, the executives allocate $4,500, granting up to $750 per publicly financed slate and capping those slates’ total spending at $1,500 each.

When first presenting their bill last Tuesday, Cardona and Wharton spoke of creating a “culture of accessibility” in which no student is deterred from running for office due to monetary concerns. Then, many senators seemed amenable to the bill on philosophical grounds; some recalled their own difficulties in deciding to spend personal funds to run for the Senate.

Zachary Warma ’11, a senator last year, attended the meeting to discuss several concerns about the bill’s unintended consequences, questioning whether high levels of spending are truly a problem. (Warma is now chair of the Daily editorial board.)

The original version of this year’s bill cited as rationale that “spending continues to increase annually,” but Cardona indicated that section would not appear in an amended version this Tuesday. Since 2008, the winning slate has not always been the one that spent the most.

In 2008, the winning ticket, Johnny Dorsey ‘09 and Fagan Harris ’09, self-reported spending $3,597.31. Competitors David Gobaud ’10 and Greg Goldgof ’08 spent $3,768.55, The Daily reported.

In 2009, Gobaud and Jay de la Torre ’10 accepted public financing. Their competitors, Bennett Hauser ’10 and Matt Sprague ’10, did not take public money and pledged to keep their spending under $2,000. Gobaud and de la Torre went on to win the election.

In 2010, Cardona and Wharton self-reported spending $998.91 on their campaign last spring — including $500 from the ASSU, Wharton said on Tuesday. Cardona and Wharton, the only slate among six to get public financing that year, believe they underspent at least one of their competing slates.

Still, Cardona said any expectation to spend personal funds could still represent a hurdle to certain students.

Recent efforts to create spending limits have not been successful — the 10th and 11th Undergraduate Senates did not pass bills containing caps. In 1999, the ASSU Constitutional Council case Hartke v. Young resulted in the ruling that mandatory campaign spending restrictions represent “a clear abridgement of free speech,” violating Article I, Section 3.2, of the ASSU constitution.

If passed, the Cardona-Wharton bill could lead to a new case before the Constitutional Council.

Cardona, who said she considered the Hartke v. Young ruling in drafting the bill, maintained that a Constitutional Council case would be a positive outcome and would “ease the minds of those worried about constitutionality.”

Legal precedent since 2000 may be on Cardona’s side. In 2007, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Flint v. Dennison against a University of Montana student, Aaron Flint, who surpassed school campaign spending limits. The ruling stated: “Educational interests outweigh the free speech interests of the students who campaigned within that limited public forum.”

“I think it’s important to make the clarification that we’re not telling people how to spend their money or express themselves…we’re just saying how much to spend overall,” Cardona said. “We don’t want to stifle innovation.”

Cardona said compared to its peer institutions, some of which allow no campaign spending, Stanford spends much more on elections. UC-Berkeley, for example, caps spending at $1,000.

Still, if the bill passes the constitutionality test, several concerns remain about enforcement.

“Their ideals are correct in trying to provide a level of equity in campaigns,” Warma said, while going on to argue the bill would only serve to “institutionalize financial discrepancies” by mandating that non-financed slates spend 25 percent more than publicly funded slates, $1,000 to $750.

Warma also worried the bill would unnecessarily tie the ASSU financial manager into the highly political and emotional campaign process, affecting “the long-term health of the institution of the ASSU.”

“You don’t want your money men or women remotely near the stench of elections,” Warma said.

The bill would require each slate to submit an itemized budget of campaign expenses before campaigning, to be audited by the financial manager after the election.

“An independent auditor could be a solution to that,” Cardona said. She said she and Wharton are still seeking feedback on the bill and are flexible to changes, she said.

Warma also complained of “needlessly confusing language” and questioned whether each senator had given the bill — three pages in full — a thorough reading.

As of Sunday evening, several senators were positive about the bill’s prospects.

“I think the bill’s going to pass. I didn’t hear one senator strongly oppose [it],” said Senator Kamil Saeid ’13; Senator Stewart Macgregor-Dennis ’13 expressed a similar sense.

The Senate meets Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Old Union Nitery.

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