The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a ruling that opens the floodgates to corporate money in federal political campaigns. But in the state of California, that gate has been open for some time. While a 2000 state law limits campaign financing for candidates running for state office, there are plenty of legal ways around the law. These loopholes enable corporations and unions, among others, to spend unlimited amounts in elections, according to Roman Porter, executive director of the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s campaign watchdog.
The widely reported multimillion-dollar efforts by Pacific Gas and Electric to stop a ballot measure in Marin County for a local electrical utility is just one recent example of corporate money in the political process. A look at some of the major donors in Merced County over the last couple years shows how the money of local business interests flows into local and statewide elections, too.
Each year anyone who spends $10,000 or more in political contributions, whether supporting ballot measure or candidates, must file with the county. The following is a list of businesses, local and not, who have opened their pocketbooks for elections, ballot measures and bonds in Merced County.
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Foster Farms, last year's only major donor from Merced County, spent more than $300,000 on state and local elections in the past three years alone, according to filings.
Foster Farms' Randy Boyce, treasurer of the company's political action committee, said the company supports candidates and political efforts that help the agricultural community and the Valley. "We try to support the political process," he said.
Gallo Cattle Co., whose CEO is Mike Gallo, contributed $83,400 in 2006 to state political campaigns as well as a local ballot measure, according to filings.
Gallo couldn't be reached for comment.
Turner Construction, the Sacramento firm that was paid $600,000 for its value engineering work on a new high school in Merced County, contributed $45,000 in support of two bond measures to raise money for school construction, one of which was the project the firm did engineering work on. The company said it didn't bid on the high school project.
"We give contributions that result in capital events," said Frank DaiZovi, the company's vice president and general manager. "We're in the business, of course there's incentives, but the point is it's not a quid pro quo." DaiZovi added that the company is part of the community and tries to help make the community better.
Tim Razzari Motors gave $10,000 to a campaign to pass a 2006 proposition to stop shakedown lawsuits, but failed to file with the county and was fined $800.
Razzari couldn't be reached for comment.
The debate on corporate limits
Whatever the sums, companies have just as much a right to participate in the political process as anyone else, said Foster Farms' Boyce.
But those advocating a limit on corporate money in politics say it not only distorts the system, but gives business a much larger voice than the average voter.
Trent Lange, president of the California Clean Money Campaign, which is pushing to get money out of politics, says it's clear corporate money in politics is out of hand. "It's corrupting the system," he said. "Candidates rely on not only corporations, but rely on very large donors to run their campaigns. The candidate that runs with the most money wins 93 percent of the time."
And, he added, unfortunately there are strings attached to that money -- even if they are not the most visible strings.
Efforts to limit the influence of money in state politics have been moving forward this election cycle. One proposed ballot measure, among many, would specifically target limiting the influence of money in state elections.
The "Corporate Political Accountability Act," a ballot measure sent to the attorney general for preparation in late 2009, was written to take corporate money out of elections. It seeks to severely curtail how corporations influence elections with their money. The measure would restrict private and public corporations from giving cash to candidates, ballot measures or advocacy campaigns unless stockholders voted to do so in a resolution.
But business groups, such as the California Chamber of Commerce, have argued that the measure isn't only unnecessary, but onerous. The state already has a transparent campaign finance system in place, notes the chamber's Web site. In further opposition to the ballot measure it states that "the bill's provisions could have a chilling effect on business participation in the political process."
Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or firstname.lastname@example.org