City Hall

Public Campaign Finance Proponents Make Case to Council

A group of representatives from cities that have passed public campaign finance laws relate their cities' experiences to a largely skeptical Seattle City Council.

By Erica C. Barnett January 31, 2013


In the hope of reducing the influence of money in campaigns, the Seattle City Council is considering public campaign financing.

The city council—which, as we've reported, is considering a ballot measure that would allow public financing of campaigns—is hosting a day-long series of events with four folks who know plenty about the ups and downs of city-funded political campaigns: Heather Holt and David Tristan from the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission; John St. Croix from the San Francisco Ethics Commission; and Debbie Aiona from the League of Women Voters of Portland—ethics experts in cities that have (or, in the case of Portland, had) public campaign finance laws.

Proponents of public campaign financing argue that 

Proponents of public financing argue that it would lower the barriers to entry for campaigns, reduce the power of incumbency, and get more people to run for office while keeping the cost of campaigns low. But the experiences of these three West Coast cities show that public financing is a mixed blessing, at best, doing little to take out incumbents or lower the cost of campaigns. 

The city last considered funding local political campaigns in 2008, even producing a report laying out how such a system might work. However, once the recession hit, public-financing proponents, including city council member Sally Clark, agreed to shelve the proposal until the economy improved.  

Now that the city and nation are on the upswing, the idea has surfaced again. City council member Mike O'Brien, who successfully pushed through a new law limiting how long candidates can raise money and barring incumbents from hanging on to money from past campaigns, says he's hoping to " find an understandable, simple system that’s not [as] terribly expensive" as city campaigns are now; currently, a typical successful city council candidate raises well over $200,000, and mayoral candidates may raise half a million or more. 

Independent Expenditures have "increased exponentially" from election to election. "It's a very frequent occurrence in our city that independent groups spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, on campaigns."

However, none of the systems the three experts laid out today were particularly simple; nor did they appear to have reduced the influence of money or the power of incumbency in elections, though they may have encouraged more (unsuccessful) candidates to run for office. 

All three cities have certain requirements for a candidate to qualify for payouts or matching funds from the city. Without belaboring the particulars, all three cities include threshold requirements (a certain number of signatures and a certain amount of money raised), and two, San Francisco and LA, require candidates to agree to participate in public debates. All three cities have limits on overall candidate spending, although none limits independent expenditures (and Portland has no limits on the size of campaign contributions).

So what have the results looked like so far? In LA, Holt said, "We have had an exponential growth in independent expenditures since program was put into place"; between 1999 and 2001, for example, independent expenditures increased from $17,000 to $3.1 million. However, Holt attributes that increase to contribution limits that went into effect in 1985.

In San Francisco, St. Croix said, the situation has been much the same: IEs have "increased exponentially" from election to election. "It's a very frequent occurrence in our city that independent groups spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, on campaigns." As for reducing the power of incumbency, St. Croix says, just one incumbent—an appointee who, he said, was mired in controversy—failed to win reelection. 

Finally, in Portland, the overturned public-finance law did seem to encourge people to run—in 2008, 15 people filed for mayor, and seven qualified—but it hasn't changed the reality that incumbents are simply tough to beat. One factor that affects elections in Portland but not in Seattle: Thanks to a court decision determining that political contributions constitute speech, there are no limits on campaign contributions in Oregon. 

The three experts will make their presentation again at 4:30 this afternoon in front of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (Seattle Municipal Tower, 700 Fifth Ave, Room 4080) and again tonight from 6–8pm at Seattle University, Seattle University, 901 12th Ave, LeRoux Conference Center.

On Feb. 13, three academics who've looked into the research on public campaign finance—University of Wisconsin professor Ken Mayer and Madison and David Earley from the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law—will offer a more research-based, academic perspective.

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