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Election spending reports are out for the first half of the year, and they prove at least one thing: San Francisco’s campaign finance law is a colossal joke. Party organizations and big labor groups who owe chits to the city’s Democratic machine — and in particular, State Sen. John Burton — spent much of the spring subverting the intent of city voters who have repeatedly passed campaign finance limits. They poured nearly $700,000 into the race for public defender, all on behalf of the senator’s daughter, Kimiko Burton. The groups bypassed contribution limits by making independent expenditures instead of giving directly to a campaign. In doing so, they made a strong case for reformers who believe the city needs to tighten its campaign reform law and better fund the city’s election watchdog, the Ethics Commission. Burton already had received more than $560,000 in direct contributions — more than twice that of opponent Jeff Adachi — before the independent spending kicked in. Thus, the total price tag for her campaign ended up in the $1.2 million range, or the ridiculous sum of about $22 for every vote she received. Given her connections, Burton’s fund-raising prowess isn’t necessarily surprising. It’s just that the spending is so completely out of whack with what the people of the city obviously want. They set a $500 limit on individual contributions to political candidates and created a voluntary spending cap of $175,000 in races like public defender. But the reforms have been easily frustrated, as the latest campaign finance reports show. According to city and state campaign records, the California Professional Firefighters Political Action Committee doled out $211,209 in independent expenditures on Burton’s behalf for the March election. The San Francisco Labor Council kicked in another $70,493, along with $33,020 from the hotel and restaurant employees union, $27,062 from attorney Patrick Hallinan, $16,000 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, $15,999 from the S.F. Police Officers Association, and $4,319 from the San Francisco Democratic Central Committee. At least those contributions were registered as independent expenditures. One group — the California Democratic Party — was able to mount a campaign offensive on Burton’s behalf under the radar of the campaign finance watchdogs. The party’s state central committee spent $309,000 on Burton’s behalf, mostly on campaign mailers and phone banks, the latest state campaign filings show. That’s more than it spent helping re-elect Gov. Gray Davis during the first six months of the year. And the central committee got around requirements that it report the spending as an independent expenditure by simply calling its efforts a “member communication” to registered Democrats. Under state law, communications to members of the party are neither listed as contributions to a candidate nor as an independent expenditure on a candidate’s behalf. So in a heavily Democratic city like San Francisco, such messages reach the majority of registered voters with no restrictions on spending and no opportunity for the other side in a campaign to effectively respond. The city’s campaign finance reporting requirements are rendered moot, and it takes three months after the election for the truth to unfold. The delicious fact about all this is that the money was a waste: Adachi beat Burton. But whether Burton won or lost is not really the point. What the documents show is that any independent group could come to San Francisco and do the same thing. Imagine, for example, the havoc some right-wing extremists could wreak with some of the city’s more progressive ordinances if they had the chance to funnel unlimited cash into a city ballot measure. Recently, the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies issued a report that says San Francisco is on the verge of clean elections — but this won’t happen unless the Board of Supervisors, the mayor and voters act to increase spending for the city’s Ethics Commission and tighten reporting requirements for independent committees that dump their money in the city. The full report is available at www.cgs.org. San Francisco must act on the center’s recommendations and close the loopholes that allow such unconscionable spending in city elections. By doing so, they can transform San Francisco’s campaign finance law from a punch line to something serious.

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