Tithing To California’s Democracy
My wife and I donate at least 10 percent of our income to the support of pro-citizen members of the California Legislature. Our objective is to free state legislators to govern in the general interest. We think of it as tithing to democracy. We also established Govern For California to help create a network of like-minded donors.
We choose to focus on state politics because states serve on the front lines of public education, health, transportation, criminal justice, housing, jobs, wages, the environment, recreation and other domestic issues. Political donations don’t qualify for tax deductions but we think that’s a small price to pay given the greater power of state governments, which spend much more than charities and have the authority to enact laws and regulations.
California alone spends $300 billion per year and its legislators write laws and regulations affecting nine million students, 14 million enrollees in the state’s single-payer healthcare system, 20 million workers and 40 million citizens. Just 62 state legislators plus the governor are required to authorize spending and enact most laws. How should we measure their current performance? On the surface all looks well during the current economic recovery but underneath there is despair. Despite a doubling in spending per K-12 student, more than half of California students can’t read at grade level, less than 40 percent meet math standards, and teacher salaries are being crowded out by pension and other retirement costs. Silicon Valley is the envy of the world yet the state in which it is located has the country’s highest poverty rate and 1 in 3 of its residents earn so little they qualify for Medicaid. Since 2010 the legislature and governor have nearly halved the share of the state budget allocated to universities, courts, assistance to the needy and parks in favor of more spending on special interests and added $100 billion in unfunded retirement liabilities accruing high rates of interest. And all that despite record tax revenues from a doubling of the stock market and a 30 percent income tax increase. The next economic slowdown will expose those failures of governance, and more.
Those failures are the result of legislators governing for special interests. But they can be beat by political contributions to legislators who govern in the general interest. Those political donations must be well-informed. Too many political donors are motivated by what politicians say instead of what they do. Donors must not be misled by marketing, urban legends or politicians who don’t walk their talk.
You don’t have to be a billionaire to move the political needle in California. The most you can donate directly to a candidate for the state legislature in 2018 is $4,400 per election. When combined with contributions from others, donations not exceeding that amount can be extremely effective, even more effective than millions of dollars of independent expenditures by plutocrats and special interests.
2018 will mark Govern For California’s seventh year. Its network of political philanthropists now contributes more money to candidates for the California Legislature than all but the political parties. Unlike special interests we don’t ask candidates to fill out questionnaires. All we ask is that they govern in the interests of their fellow citizens. 17 have qualified for our 2018 slate and another 24 look promising enough to be supported by our Courage Committee.
Democracies can not persevere if good people do not financially support good candidates for public office. If you want to address the problems facing the vast majority of your fellow Californians, become an informed donor to pro-citizen state legislators.