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Santa Fe closer to overhauling campaign financing

August 26, 2018

An overhaul of the city’s public campaign finance system on Thursday advanced seamlessly through an advisory campaign review board.

Under the proposal, Santa Fe would become one of a handful of U.S. cities to enact a small-donor matching program, a reform intended to boost publicly funded candidates and discourage massive floods of private outside money and political action committees.

Candidates for city office who qualify for public financing would be permitted to raise small donations — not to exceed $100 from any one donor — and see their hauls matched by the city campaign finance fund, 2-to-1.

The reform measure, sponsored by City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth, is not a conspicuous, flashy issue but very well could mark a meaningful transformation in city politics, empowering small donors and ensuring elections are “citizen-funded,” according to Common Cause New Mexico.

Without the matching provision, good-government advocates argue, the public campaign finance option is only a shell of what it ought to be, leaving candidates little choice but to engage in an expensive race to raise private dollars or else be left at a significant disadvantage.

“This at least gives [publicly financed] candidates the ability to fight back,” said Ruth Kovnat of the city Ethics and Campaign Review Board. “With small amounts of private money — and to have that matched by the city — gives them some additional ammunition against those unregulated forces in the political process.”

In the 2014 mayoral election, political action committees seemed to tip the scales in favor of one publicly funded candidate, and the mayoral election this year saw three of the five candidates spurn the public finance option, saying it was not a viable path to a competitive run.

The Ethics and Campaign Review Board has considered — and endorsed — a similar matching proposal before, though it languished at the City Council. Board members on Thursday unanimously approved their latest recommendation, commenting that it was an imperfect fix, given the strictures established by the U.S. Supreme Court, but a necessary one.

“This is the best we can do,” board member Paul Biderman said. “We can’t write an exception to the First Amendment. We can’t reverse Supreme Court cases. We’re trying to restore a degree of integrity — to make public financing as attractive as possible so people continue to use it. I think we want to stand by it.”

The city’s original public campaign finance ordinance included a similar sort of matching provision to help publicly funded candidates, but the U.S. Supreme Court effectively gutted it, ruling in 2011 that it would disadvantage privately financed candidates.

Other U.S. cities with a matching provision within public campaign finance systems include Los Angeles and Berkeley, Calif., while Portland, Ore., will see its matching provision take effect next year, and Washington, D.C., approved one earlier this year. New York City matches small-donor contributions with public money at a 6-to-1 rate.

Board members Thursday sought clarification on how much the city might expend to support publicly financed candidates under the reformed system.

The city’s public campaign finance fund is required by ordinance to have at least $600,000 in mayoral election years and $300,000 in years without a mayoral election. If there were enough publicly financed candidates raising small-dollar contributions in one election cycle to completely drain the fund, the matching disbursements would be proportionately reduced to “avoid a ‘run on the bank’ scenario,” according to a city fiscal analysis.

Additionally, the legislation would “cap” matching allotments at twice the original disbursement to each publicly financed candidate: $120,000 for mayoral candidates and $30,000 for City Council candidates.

“This would contain the cost to be predictable, so it doesn’t just bleed the city dead, essentially,” Romero-Wirth said.

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