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City of Santa Fe considers changes to public campaign financing

August 20, 2018

Publicly financed candidates for city offices could raise additional money in small amounts, and whatever they mustered would be doubled by the city’s campaign finance fund, according to a proposal to reform the system after the most expensive mayoral race in Santa Fe history.

City candidates who qualify for a public campaign finance disbursement are prohibited from accepting outside money to boost their campaign.

Mayoral candidates receive $60,000, and City Council hopefuls get $15,000. But candidates who choose to privately finance a run may raise funds to their hearts’ content, or as far as their political appeal will go.

The privately financed campaign of Mayor Alan Webber, for instance, was more than five times richer than the $60,000 allotment received by runner-up Ron Trujillo, the only publicly financed candidate in the five-way March mayoral contest.

The new proposal would allow publicly funded candidates like Trujillo to also raise “small contributions,” or donations not to exceed $100 in aggregate from any one donor, which could then be matched 2-to-1 by money from the city’s public campaign finance coffers.

In the context of the dramatic private fundraising totals of the 2018 mayor’s race, in particular the record-shattering sum raised by Webber, the proposal would seem intended to balance the scales in favor of the little fish and restore the original idea of the Santa Fe public campaign finance system: keeping big money out of local politics.

“They won’t be helpless anymore,” said Jim Harrington of Common Cause New Mexico, an advocate of the proposal, referring to publicly funded office-seekers.

The legislation is sponsored by freshman City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth.

“It’s not necessarily going to be even, but if you can’t reduce the influence of outside spending, it makes the public financing system less viable for candidates,” Romero-Wirth said.

Candidates who receive the 2-to-1 matching funds would be required to file regular donation reports with the City Clerk’s Office, according to a draft of the legislation, and the payouts would never exceed the balance of the public campaign finance fund, which under the city code must contain at least $300,000 in election years without a mayor’s race and $600,000 in years with a mayoral election.

Romero-Wirth called the bill an “important counter” to unregulated political action committee money and the trend toward privately financed city campaigns.

The bolstered public campaign finance program is in fact an old idea, dating to the program’s inception a decade ago. As originally written, the city’s public campaign finance ordinance entitled publicly funded candidates to money that would match the spending of privately funded opponents and political action committees.

A 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision about Arizona’s “clean elections” law put that dream to rest, however, finding such matching allowances were unconstitutional before the city could hold its first election with the new public system in 2012.

“Then we kind of went along with trying to run the system without any matching and [we] wanted to see if Santa Fe was a virtuous enough town that PACs weren’t going to go crazy, and people weren’t going to spend privately,” Harrington said.

The 2014 and 2018 mayoral elections deflated that hope, he and others said.

The 2014 mayoral race saw each of the three candidates take part in the public system. But private political action committees aligned with Javier Gonzales flooded the race and made a mockery of the idea that the publicly funded candidates stood on a level playing field, critics and Gonzales opponents said.

It was little surprise, then, when three of five candidates next time around — Webber, school board member Kate Noble and former City Councilor Joseph Maestas — spurned the public system in this year’s election. Webber, for his part, called it a “leaky vessel.”

Of the five candidates, only Trujillo qualified for the public campaign finance system. Councilor Peter Ives sought qualification but did not manage to compile the requisite number of $5 donations by the deadline.

Webber’s total — almost $316,000, with donors from at least 25 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada — lapped his rivals’ combined efforts.

Co-sponsoring Councilor Renee Villarreal said changes in public financing would “control the flow of who’s getting in — it’s one way to dissuade PACs from forming.”

Ives, another co-sponsor, said that while political action committees in this year’s mayoral weren’t a particularly influential bloc, the principle of empowering publicly funded candidates to compete was an important one.

“To allow people to get their message out, so they can reach the people of Santa Fe, helps voters understand their choices and have an opportunity to feel like real participants in the process,” he said.

The amendments to the public campaign finance code are scheduled for a hearing Thursday before the city’s Ethics and Campaign Review Board.

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