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L.A. ethics panel could raise limits on campaign donations

February 2, 2012 |  9:26 am

The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on a plan to lift the limits on campaign contributions for the first time in 27 years, increasing the size of donations city candidates can accept by more than double.

Under the proposal, candidates for City Council would see the maximum contribution increase from $500 to $1,100 per donor per election cycle. Candidates for mayor, city attorney and city controller would see the cap lifted from $1,000 to $2,200.

Ethics commission officials said a larger package of changes to the city's campaign rules would be forwarded to the council in coming months. But they also contend the five-member panel can increase the contribution caps unilaterally to account for inflation--without the council's approval.

Candidates for mayor have already raised more than $3.7 million for their campaigns, even though the election is more than a year a way. State Assemblyman Mike Feuer, a candidate for city attorney, took in $345,000 after fundraising for less than four months.

Council President Herb Wesson asked the commission to consider lifting the contribution caps two months ago, warning that if the limits were not increased, candidates' own campaigns would only be more overshadowed by independent expenditure committees.

Those committees can take in unlimited donations but are barred from coordinating with their chosen candidates.

"If it were me, I'd say let's have no limits at all but just report faster" to the commission the donations that have been raised, Wesson told the commission in December.

Since then, commission staffers have concluded that the city's contribution limits, which were approved in 1985, should be adjusted to account for increases in the Consumer Price Index. They found that Houston, Philadelphia and New York City already allow politicians to raise significantly larger sums from each contributor.

If commissioners agree to increase the contribution limits, a second vote would be needed in coming months. Voters originally approved spending limits in an effort to limit corruption or the appearance of corruption in city decision-making.

Under the commission's proposal, campaign donations to school board candidates would also jump, though by a much smaller degree, from $1,000 to $1,100, according to the plan. Commissioners are also considering plans to allow campaign donations to be made by text message.

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-- David Zahniser at Los Angeles City Hall

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