“Municipal campaign spending in California shows no evidence that contribution limits increase independent expenditures”

The following is a guest post from Zoe Klingmann:

Critics of campaign finance reform have often argued that contribution limits have unintended consequences: rather than reducing the influence of large donors, they simply lead to more independent expenditures, which are less regulated and often less transparent than direct contributions to campaigns. 

A new report by California Common Cause studying a targeted sample of cities finds no evidence for this theory. The report looks at local independent expenditures before and after the passage of California State Assembly Bill 571 (2019), which set “default” contribution limits for local elections across the state. The law does not affect local governments that institute their own contribution limits, but otherwise applies a biennially-adjusted cap starting at $4,700 per election for city council, mayor, and other local positions, mirroring the limit for state legislative seats.

Due to AB 571, more than two-thirds of California cities entered the 2022 election cycle with brand-new contribution limits, where previously there had been no limits at all. To understand the impact of these new limits on independent spending, California Common Cause tracked expenditures in a group of California cities during the 2018 and 2022 elections. We focused on a sample of large- (150k+ population) and medium-sized (50k-150k population) cities that included six cities with over 150,000 residents where data was available. The average and median populations of the cities studied were approximately 152,000 and 91,000 residents respectively in 2020 and 137,000 and 86,000 residents respectively in 2010.

For each city in the sample, we matched a “control city” that already had contribution limits in effect and were not affected by AB 571. This enabled us to compare trends in spending between cities with new contribution limits and cities where there was no change in policy.

The report finds that independent expenditures changed very little among cities affected by AB 571. Political committees in the cities studied spent an average of $2,986 on independent expenditures before the passage of the law and $2,826 afterwards. At the same time, the group of cities not affected by AB 571 because they already had contribution limits actually saw increases in independent expenditures.

While the sample size of this analysis is small, these findings suggest that new local contribution limits have not led to an increase in independent expenditures among large cities in California. Further research is needed to understand whether these findings apply in different political contexts: independent expenditures may be more common in state and federal races, local races that are substantially competitive, or in jurisdictions with lower contribution limits than AB 571.

Zoe Klingmann is a policy researcher and Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. She has worked in public opinion research and as a staffer in the Oregon State Legislature. She completed this report as a graduate student fellow working on behalf of California Common Cause.

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