After a close defeat (by 1,426 votes, or 0.8 percent) in 2013, public campaign financing could be back on the ballot as soon as this year, revamped to include Seattle's seven new city council districts. (The 2013 proposal only applied to at-large council seats; had it passed along with districts that year, it would have only impacted the two at-large seats).
Council members like Mike O'Brien and Nick Licata support public financing because they believe it would lower the financial barriers to entry for candidates, increase the number of small contributors, and make elections more competititve in general. (O'Brien explains some of the reasons he supports public financing on his blog).
A survey of cities with public campaign financing by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission found no evidence that public finance increases competitiveness, the commission did agree that it could reduce barriers to entry and draw new people into the political process.
The city council's education and governance committee took its first public look at the details of a potential ballot measure this morning.
Some basic details of the proposal would stay the same: The city would increase property taxes by a little over a penny per $1,000 of assessed value, or about $4.69 a year for the owner of a $400,000 house. That would raise up to $2 million a year, money that would be used to provide a 6-to-1 match for contributions of up to $50 from residents of the city of Seattle; half of that money would be available in the primary election, half in the general.
From there, districts start to shift the landscape. Some of the questions council members will be grappling with:
• How many donors should a candidate have to have before he or she qualifies for public funding? The 2013 proposal required at least 600 individual donations, but that's probably less realistic for someone running in a district instead of citywide. Council staffers suggested a minimum between 200 and 400 donors. Which raises the second question...
• Should donors have to be residents of a district to count toward the donor minimum? New York, with 50 districts, and Los Angeles, with 15 districts, require donors to live in a district to have their donations matched. Tuscon and San Francisco, with populations much more similar to Seattle's, allow contributions that come from anywhere in the city to count toward the total.
Tim Burgess questioned whether restricting people's ability to have their donations matched (and thus discouraging donations from outside the districts where donors live) might disenfranchise minority groups who already have the district deck stacked against them, by virtue of the fact that the South End, where the majority of the city's minority, immigrant, and refugee populations live, only has two districts while the whiter North End has five.
"One of the issues is that even through we are elected by district, we really are charged with representing the entire city," Burgess said. Restricting matched donations by district "may contribute to or exacerbate the idea that I represent this district and that’s it.""The voters, even though it was very narrowly defeated, did make a decision last November ... and I struggle with [the question of] if we had one more dollar to spend, where we would invest that money?"—City Council member Tim Burgess
"There were a lot of arguments about the way the districts are drawn—they tend to shift some influence north of Yesler Way because there’s more districts there. ...We want to be careful that we don't inadvertently step into a situation where we exacerbate some of the fears about districts versus citywide or make people feel they aren’t having their voices heard."
The city could end up deciding that only donations from within a district qualify for the 6-1 match; that donations from anywhere in the city qualify; or requiring some combination of district and citywide contributions.
• What limit should the city set on spending in district races vs. citywide?
The 2013 proposal would have capped total spending at $245,000, with a $140,000 limit in the primary. Noting that the average district race in other cities costs about half of a typical citywide race (in Seattle, the average cost of a citywide race over the past few years has been around $180,000), and that a typical legislative race costs around $95,000, staffers suggested a limit between $100,000 and $140,000 for district races. (Consultants surveyed by the city estimated a range of $120,000 to $190,000).
Burgess suggested those proposed limits might be low, noting that Seattle's city council races tend to be far more competitive—and lead to far more turnover—than legislative races. Licata countered that consultants have a vested interest in estimating higher costs, since that's how they make their money. "Their estimates are always a little high, in my experience," Licata joked.
• Finally, when should the council take action and when should another public financing measure go on the ballot? Given that the November ballot will include a huge number of other costly proposals—including, potentially, two competing minimum-wage proposals, a new tax for universal pre-kindergarten, and a Seattle-only Metro funding measure—there's a real possibility that public campaign finance would fall to the bottom of the priority heap.
"For me, I struggle with advancing this measure this year," Burgess said. "The voters, even though it was very narrowly defeated, did make a decision last November ... and I struggle with [the question of] if we had one more dollar to spend, where we would invest that money? And while I support in principle the concept of public financing of campaigns, I would probably support universal preschool and other measures we will be considering at a higher level."
However, council member Sally Bagshaw pointed out that a packed ballot tends to increase voter turnout, which could translate to greater voter support for public campaign finance.
The council has until June to pass the proposal as an ordinance and send it to the mayor, and until July if they decide instead to pass it by referendum.