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Earlier this week, San Diego Unified decided to increase its school board campaign contribution limits from $500 to $750 per person per election. The Union-Tribune wrote that the last time it bumped up the limit, “the change paved the way for what was then the city’s most expensive school board election in 2000.”

But there’s an important point being lost here, one that I neglected to make earlier. While an individual is limited in campaign giving, they can spend as much as they want to promote that candidate on their own. Those are called independent expenditures.

For instance, the teachers union or the Lincoln Club of San Diego could put up a big billboard saying which school board candidates they think you should vote for. As long as that isn’t coordinated with those candidates’ campaigns, the groups can spend as much as they want to express their opinions.

So even though there are people can only chip so much into a campaign, they can still spend as much money as they want to tout a candidate on their own. If that seems paradoxical to you, you’re not the only one. There was a lot of commotion last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and labor unions could spend as much as they want to promote or oppose candidates. Here’s how our own Scott Lewis explained that reality a few years ago:

We can complain all we want about the fundraisers candidates have and we can (and should) scrutinize who gives the checks.

But the cold reality is unavoidable: If you don’t have much personal wealth, you have to find someone to give it to you. Right now, two movements in the city have the power to raise it for you. … You can make it with the business community and their lobbyists will bundle dozens of checks together for you. Or you can make it with the labor unions, who can also, essentially, bundle loads of checks together for you and send you on your way. Both groups can, on the side, afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on your behalf.

They can give unlimited sums to the local political parties and those parties can work with you and spend unlimited sums to make sure you get enough exposure to get in office.

Scott concluded that while campaign contribution limits are important, it actually made sense to raise limits so that candidates don’t have to turn to “the entrenched networks of the unions or lobbyists.”

School board member Kevin Beiser made a similar point at the Tuesday meeting, pointing out that self-financed candidates — a clear allusion to Steve Rosen, who ran against Beiser last year — could give as much as they wanted to their own campaigns. Beiser said increasing the limit would give candidates with limited resources a fair shot.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t good arguments to keep the contribution limit at $500, the same as for City Council candidates. But it’s an important dimension of the debate: If someone can independently spend as much as they want to promote a candidate, what’s the impact of campaign contribution limits?

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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