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SLO County's new $25,000 campaign donation limit among highest in state 

Despite a torrent of public opposition decrying money's influence in politics, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors pushed ahead on Nov. 20 to adopt a new $25,000 per donor cap on campaign contributions to county candidates—one of the highest among California counties.

Rushed to pass before a new state law—AB 571—takes effect next year and defaults counties without local limits to the state's Fair Political Practices Commission's (FPPC) per donor cap, the board led by 1st District Supervisor John Peschong sidestepped an outpouring of criticism and argued that a $25,000 limit preserved local control and also gave candidates the tools to win elections. The FPPC is planning to increase the current $4,700 cap to $4,900 in January.

click to enlarge PUSH THE LIMIT SLO County 1st District Supervisor John Peschong explains his support for a $25,000 donation limit for campaign contributions to county candidates. - SCREENSHOT COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY
  • Screenshot Courtesy Of SLO County
  • PUSH THE LIMIT SLO County 1st District Supervisor John Peschong explains his support for a $25,000 donation limit for campaign contributions to county candidates.

The board voted 3-1, with 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson dissenting, to pass the ordinance and shift enforcement duties from the FPPC to the SLO County District Attorney's Office.

Supervisors in support of the cap pointed out that the county has not had any campaign contribution limits in the past for races like county supervisor, district attorney, and sheriff-coroner.

"It's a good number," Peschong said after two hours of public comment that expressed almost unanimous opposition to the dollar amount. "If we don't move this forward today, and we accept the state's limit, we can't change it. ... Ultimately, I do not want Sacramento and the governor's office and legislature to tell the people of SLO County what to do."

Among the ranks of counties that've adopted their own campaign finance ordinances, SLO County is now in the top five in terms of highest contribution limit, according to a New Times analysis.

Only Alameda County and Fresno County allow larger individual donations, with caps of $40,000 and $30,000 in those respective counties. Most large metropolitan counties have limits below the state's, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Diego, and Orange. Many counties don't have any rules on their books and are likely to default to the state's $4,900 limit next year per AB 571.

In voting against the SLO County ordinance, Supervisor Gibson cited the public opposition and added that he didn't want the elected district attorney to enforce rules that would also apply to his or her own race. Gibson said that his office tallied the total number of phone calls and emails that came in from the public on the subject—they went 700 to zero in opposition, he said.

"I think the will of the population of SLO County is clear," Gibson said. "I think we're missing an opportunity here to cure the kind of ... huge, large dollar contributions that come in trying to sway the election."

But Peschong argued that a higher limit gives candidates a chance to compete in fundraising against independent expenditures—or third-party committees, where donations are unlimited under Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission.

A longtime Republican strategist who's run presidential, state, and local candidate campaigns, Peschong said that if candidates are tied down by a lower donation limit they would be "overwhelmed" by independent expenditures.

"That's what I truly believe," Peschong said. "And I've seen that in other counties."

But Gibson and other citizens who spoke up were unconvinced. Some questioned the ethics of Peschong's ownership stake in his political consulting firm, Meridian Pacific Inc., which has worked on local candidate campaigns in the past, including sitting 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold, 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton, and District Attorney Dan Dow.

The FPPC opened an investigation into that alleged conflict of interest on Nov. 4 following a complaint filed by Morro Bay resident Malcolm McEwen.

"I believe that Supervisor Peschong has a disqualifying conflict of interest in any participation in this matter because the ordinance regarding campaign finance could have a direct financial effect on his business interests," McEwen's Oct. 22 complaint reads.

In a response letter to the FPPC, Peschong called the complaint a "frivolous" accusation from "a regular public scold." He said he did not have a conflict of interest because Meridian Pacific has not worked for county candidates since his election in 2016 and won't for the remainder of his time in office (Peschong has said he will not seek re-election in 2024).

In backing the $25,000 contribution limit, Supervisor Compton said that trying to eschew money from politics is just unrealistic.

"The money doesn't go in our pockets when we run. It goes for things like advertising, it goes for radio, for TV. That's really expensive," Compton said. "People are saying let's get money out of politics. That's just not the reality of getting your message across nowadays." Δ

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