SANTA CRUZ -- Proposition 15, one of the lesser-known ballot measures this June, is a small step toward a big goal: limiting the influence of money in politics.
Riled by the recent Supreme Court decision that removes caps on corporate contributions and the record cash in this year's governor race, supporters of the measure want public funds to be used for political campaigns in exchange for strict limits on candidate spending and fundraising.
Such publicly financed campaigns, say those who rallied for the measure in Santa Cruz last weekend, would level the electoral playing field and keep special interests from buying undue leverage in California elections.
"People with money now have an inordinate amount of power," said Terence Welch, a Santa Cruz resident who is helping organize for Proposition 15. "The person who is rich has the equivalent of thousands of votes. That's not democracy to me."
The measure introduces only modest change, but supporters -- as well as opponents -- say it could be the beginnings of a bigger shift in the elections landscape. The measure would offer public financing for one statewide race, the election of the secretary of state; but it repeals a longtime ban on public campaign financing statewide in anticipation of more races being run with public funds.
"This will allow us to get our foot in the door," Welch said. "People will see how well it works and, hopefully, it will expand."
But winning support for Proposition 15 won't be easy. Two other ballot initiatives this decade offering public financing for campaigns were soundly defeated.
One of the ongoing concerns has been the scarcity of public funds and an unwillingness to use them on elections. Proposition 15 anticipates this objection and proposes a hike in the registration fees of lobbyists to pay for the program.
Still, opponents of the measure worry that once the ban on public financing is lifted, new proposals to use taxpayer money on elections might surface.
"Local jurisdictions could enact their own public financing schemes. City councils and board of supervisors could levy a fee on lobbyists or use their general funds to finance campaigns," said Richard Wiebe, spokesman for StopProp15.com. "We just have too many priorities in this state to spend money on negative ads and campaign mailers."
The opposition coalition, to date, has raised only several thousand dollars compared to more than $250,000 raised by supporters, according to filing reports.
Supporters, who rallied Saturday at the Santa Cruz Quaker Meeting House, have won the endorsement of many traditionally Democratic groups such as the League of Women Voters and the Sierra Club. Assemblyman Bill Monning, D-Carmel, and former Santa Cruz area Assemblymen John Laird and Fred Keeley also pledged support last weekend.
The Saturday rally comes as Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman commits another $20 million to her $39 million campaign. Also, a January Supreme Court decision struck down laws curbing corporate spending to elect or defeat candidates.
"What that really makes clear is public financing is needed now more than ever," said the chair of the Yes on Proposition 15 campaign, Trent Lange, who was in Santa Cruz on Saturday.
The measure would institute voluntary public financing for secretary of state candidates in the 2014 and 2018 races.
Former Secretary of State and Santa Cruz resident Bruce McPherson, a Republican, has not taken a position on Proposition 15, but says he's generally wary of public financing programs.
"I don't mind campaign limits," he said. "But philosophically, I like the idea of people being able to give what they want to who they support."
The June measure, put on the ballot by the state Legislature, repeals a longtime ban on the public financing of political campaigns and calls for a trial public financing program for the next secretary of state race.
Supporters, who say the proposition will temper the influence of big money in elections, see the measure as the beginning of a broader public financing movement. Opponents worry about the use of public funds for campaigning.
Under the proposition, public financing would be voluntary and available to candidates in the 2014 secretary of state election who prove viable by collecting 7,500 $5 contributions. The amount of money candidates would get, in return for accepting spending caps, would vary with the race, and go up if other candidates opt out of the public financing program.
Increased fees on lobbyists would largely pay for the Proposition 15 plan.