Some Santa Fe councilors skeptical of campaign finance overhaul

October 2, 2018

A proposal to overhaul the city of Santa Fe’s campaign finance system by letting publicly funded candidates raise extra money in small amounts got a frosty reception Monday from the city Finance Committee.

Under the proposal, mayoral and City Council candidates who qualify for public campaign money (currently $60,000 for mayoral candidates and $15,000 for council candidates) could raise additional funds in $100 increments and then see that money “matched” by city government 2 to 1.

The tweaks to the system, Byzantine but potentially influential in transforming how candidates for city office conduct their campaigns, would strengthen the public-financing option, advocates say, and ensure bids for local office are “citizen-funded” and not as exposed to unlimited donations from private checkbooks.

City councilors, however, were less than enthused by the idea, which has gained traction elsewhere in the country as cities enact small-donor matching programs intended to discourage floods of private outside money in municipal races.

“I have a hard time seeing that this really makes a difference,” Councilor Mike Harris said. “To take this next step, to me, is just not worth it.”

Skeptical councilors variously commented that proposed additional disbursements were greater than City Council candidates could reasonably expect to need and that so-called “dark money” has not been a menace in down-ballot city races, including the one for the municipal judgeship.

Finance Committee members voted 3-1 to indefinitely postpone consideration of the measure, saying they want to further explore potential caps on what the city could pay out in matching funds.

A postponement was preferable to a likely ‘no’ vote for Councilor Carol Romero-Worth, who sponsored the initiative and said she would work to amend the proposal and reintroduce it.

Councilor Signe Lindell voted against the postponement, saying she was prepared to kill the measure outright.

“We’re solving a problem that we don’t have,” Lindell said.

Lindell brandished a set of numbers to support her assertion: Since the public campaign finance system was introduced, city races have seen the publicly financed candidate win more often than not. She added that too many races do not even draw more than one candidate.

Indeed, of the 10 contested races since 2012 where there has been at least one publicly financed candidate and one privately financed candidate, a publicly financed candidate has won six times, according to a review by the city attorney’s office. Five times in the last four election cycles, only one candidate has stepped forward to represent a City Council district.

With that context, Lindell said, the proposed overhaul was an answer in search of a question.

“It doesn’t appear to me that public financing is failing us,” she said.

Romero-Wirth countered that the public finance system is at risk of becoming obsolete without some boost. She pointed out that most candidates in the citywide mayor’s race earlier this year spurned the public finance option.

“At the mayoral level, I think this is absolutely critical,” she said. “… And I do think it is only a matter of time before we see more money in council races. The money is out there; it’s coming. The seats are important. I’d like to see us keep control of our elections.”

Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta questioned the potential additional spending for City Council candidates, in particular. Under Romero-Wirth’s initial proposal, publicly financed council candidates could raise up to $15,000 in $100 donations. The 2-to-1 city match would provide an additional $30,000 from the city’s campaign finance fund.

Candidates could, however, keep raising additional $100 donations to their hearts’ content.

“So you could have a publicly financed candidate raising 50, 60, 70, 80 thousand dollars?” Abeyta asked.

“You know how hard that would be to do?” Romero-Wirth shot back, laughing.

Councilors also expressed concern about the ongoing viability of the city fund from which candidates pull money, and Harris added he was not convinced privately financed campaigns are inherently suspect.

“It’s a very cynical view of our political culture — not only that money corrupts, but it corrupts absolutely,” he said. “I just don’t buy that.”

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