Campaign Contributions and Ads
Campaign Contributions and Campaign Advertisements
Prohibits individuals associated with large development projects from donating to certain city candidates while their project is under consideration and increases donor disclosure requirements for political advertisements.
What the Measure Would Do
Prop. F proposes changes to San Francisco’s rules around campaign contributions and disclosures. The measure would:
1. Add limited liability corporations and limited liability partnerships to the list of business entities that are prohibited from contributing directly to campaigns. This list already includes traditional corporations.
2. Prohibit an individual, and any entity they control or majority own, from contributing to the election or reelection campaigns of candidates for mayor, the Board of Supervisors or city attorney if the individual or affiliated entity:
a. has a land-use request pending with the city; or
b. had a land-use request with the city that was completed/resolved within the previous 12 months.
Those who would be restricted from contributing include the entity’s executives and board members, anyone holding a position of director or principal, and people with an ownership interest of at least $5 million or more. The prohibition would only apply if the land-use request or development project is worth $5 million or more and is not for the individual’s primary residence. The prohibition would apply to both for-profit and nonprofit entities.
3. Lower the threshold for qualifying as a top donor to political advertisements (and being subject to disclosure) from $10,000 to $5,000. It would also make it harder for the top donors to shield their names behind a committee name, and it would change how disclaimers must be made in ads and how copies of the ads must be filed with the city’s Ethics Commission.
An individual, entity or campaign found to have violated these regulations would be subject to penalties, including fines or time in jail, that were approved by San Francisco voters in earlier ballot measures regarding campaign regulations.
For many years, San Francisco’s legislators and voters have been at the forefront of policies to reduce the influence of money in municipal politics. Current law already prohibits any individual from contributing more than $500 to any San Francisco campaign. Other regulations ban city contractors from contributing to candidates who have power over their contracts and require campaigns to provide extensive public disclosure regarding their donors. This ordinance seeks to address areas where proponents feel there are gaps in current regulation that allow individuals and businesses with deep pockets to have disproportionate influence.
The proposed restrictions on individuals and entities with land-use matters before the city would treat them similarly to individuals and businesses that have, or are seeking, city contracts. In both cases, the idea is that an individual or business with a vested interest in the outcome of a decision controlled by elected officials should be restricted from donating to those officials until a year after the matter or contract has been resolved.
Proponents of the proposed changes to disclaimers on advertisements argue that political committees have been evading the regulations for disclosing major campaign contributors. Major contributors to campaign advertising can often hide their involvement and shield their identities by having one political committee donate to another, similar committee. The proposed regulations would require political committees to reveal an additional layer of information that would get closer to identifying those individuals or businesses providing the funds for the political advertising.
The measure was placed on the ballot by Supervisors Gordon Mar, Matt Haney, Sandra Lee Fewer, Hillary Ronen and Rafael Mandelman. The proponents behind this measure are a group of former San Francisco Ethics Commission members and former elected officials who have dubbed the measure the “Sunlight on Dark Money Initiative.”
Provisions 1 and 2 above have to be on the ballot because they amend earlier ballot measures. The third set of provisions, regarding disclaimers on political advertisements, could have been proposed by the Ethics Commission and approved legislatively by the Board of Supervisors.
- Increased disclosure requirements would provide voters with more information about who is funding political advertising and help them better judge the content of those ads.
- Prohibiting individuals with control over or investment in a large development project from donating to candidates who can decide that project’s future would close off one avenue for pay-to-play politics.
- It is unclear whether the problem of campaign contributions from people connected to development projects is large enough to merit prohibiting numerous individuals associated with those projects from donating to certain campaigns. Considering that the city already prohibits individuals from donating more than $500 to a campaign, it is unlikely that individual contributions would have undue influence over city decisions.
- The additional campaign restrictions and requirements would make running for office more complicated, raising the cost of campaigns and increasing the barrier to entry for people who seek to run for public office.
- The law would require prospective campaign donors to attest, under penalty of perjury, that they are eligible to make a donation under a complex set of criteria related to development projects. This is a higher bar than city contractors are held to and could dissuade people from contributing for fear of running afoul of a law that may not apply to them.
- The measure’s provisions regarding campaign disclosures could have been addressed legislatively via the Ethics Commission and Board of Supervisors rather than being placed on the ballot.
SPUR recognizes the importance of curtailing the influence of money in politics. We also share the concern that current regulations at the federal, state and local level allow many people who fund political advertising to remain anonymous by hiding behind innocuous-sounding political committees. This opacity reduces voters’ ability to discern who is behind campaign ads and limits their ability to judge the ads and issues before them.
Prop. F combines two campaign finance issues — contributions from individuals connected to development projects and increased disclosure of those financing campaign ads — that would have been better addressed separately. The measure’s provisions to increase transparency via reformed disclosure laws would likely have a positive benefit by helping voters know who is funding political advertising. However, these reforms could be made through the legislative process, where the trade-offs of the specific requirements could be better weighed and refined.
In regard to contributions from individuals connected to development projects, there is certainly a public interest in either restricting or closely tracking who is funding the campaigns of elected officials with the power to make or break a project. However, it is unclear that the measure’s strict provisions are merited. The city’s $500 limit on donations from any individual already restricts the amount of money people can contribute to candidates with power over their development projects. Furthermore, when donors contribute to campaigns, they must list their employer. Should a company or organization organize a “bundling” effort within their firm to have many people donate to a candidate, that effort would be discernible through existing campaign disclosure laws and would shine a light on any potential pay-to-play effort.
While there are some good ideas regarding increased disclosure in this measure, parts of this measure would have been better addressed legislatively and other parts are not clearly necessary.