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Dark Money Dominates LAUSD Elections

Samantha Oltman | October 3, 2012

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Until recently, millions of dollars of special interest money flowed directly to candidates for their own campaigns (shown in red).

However, the March election for three LAUSD Board seats promises to be dominated by a torrent of outside money from independent expenditure committees (IEs) – much the way super PACs have eclipsed campaign contributions at the national level. In the last two elections, IE spending (shown in blue) has accounted more than $5 million – up from less than $6,000 in the two preceding cycles.

Where is all this money coming from, and how much might be spent on the 2013 races? As you’ll see, it’s no easy task figuring that out.

It’s not surprising that independent expenditures dominate spending. After a 2007 local ballot measure set a cap of $1,000 on how much an individual or group could give to an LAUSD candidate, expenditures from outside groups exploded. These IEs have no spending limits and function outside the control of candidates and their campaigns, sometimes spending so much money that they dwarf official campaign coffers. As with super PACs, local IEs are separate committees that are prohibited from coordinating with candidates or the official campaigns.

The money for these races comes from a mix of unions and reform groups.  According to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, of the $5 million spent by IEs in the last two cycles, the biggest single spender was United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), most of it through its IE committee, UTLA-PACE (Political Action Council of Educators), in support of school board candidates with views aligned with the union. (See graph.)

Education reform groups, such as the Coalition for School Reform, and groups funded by the local branch of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which regularly opposes UTLA/PACE candidates, were the other significant spenders. 

But it is not easy to find out who exactly is behind the IEs themselves: while city laws require IEs to file a list of their contributors each quarter, the City Ethics Commission does not make the information available online.

The explosion of independent expenditure spending in LAUSD elections and other city-wide elections has been well studied, but the Citizens United vs FEC Supreme Court ruling prevents reforms like capping donations. According to a study by the Center for Governmental Studies,  “independent expenditures [are] a major loophole that allows special interests to exert undue influence on the election process despite contribution limits.”

As the spring LAUSD elections approach, expect outside money to continue to pour in from IEs – and perhaps to be a deciding factor in who wins and loses in the 2013 board races.

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