If you live in the Seattle area, that complete bozo running for office — the fat-cat conservative, the latte-sipping liberal dweeb, the wacked out white supremacist — may soon be campaigning with your tax dollars. And that may be a good thing. The alternative might be having the same bozo running with special interest funds. And if access to money no longer filters people out of politics, the ballot may be more likely to include someone who's not a bozo at all.
At the national level, some people fear that public financing of political campaigns may be an idea whose time is about to pass. When Barack Obama announced last week that he would forgo public funds in order to raise maximum cash on his own, The New York Times expressed worry that 2008 might be remembered not only for Obama's and Hillary Clinton's historic candidacies, but also as "the year public financing died."
In this Washington, however, 2008 may be remembered as the year public financing gets a new lease on life. This spring, the state legislature made it legal for any local government — except a school district — to offer its voters a referendum on the public funding of campaigns. Seattle and King County voters might vote next November. An advisory committee has recommended Seattle do exactly that, for a public finance system to take effect in 2011.
The advisory committee could have recommended putting it on the ballot this fall, but Seattle lawyer (and former Wisconsin legislator) Michele Radosevich, who chaired it, explained shortly before the report came out that the issue had drawn virtually no public attention, this fall's ballot will be crowded, and the chances of educating people about public funding between now and November were slim.
Current ignorance notwithstanding, once upon a time both Seattle and King County put public money into campaigns. In 1978, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance that established the nation's first public financing system, and 11 years later, King County established a public financing system of its own. Then, in 1992, there was a campaign-finance-reform initiative pushed by conservative state senator — and later congresswoman — Linda Smith, specifically outlawing public financing. (Smith's Initiative 134 won support from a number of big corporations but opposition from liberal interest groups.)
Public funding supporters — including the statewide advocacy group, Washington Public Campaigns — tried repeatedly to get a new bill through the legislature. This spring, they finally succeeded — although not quite as they had hoped. Washington Public Campaigns had drafted a bill that would have permitted public funding of all local elections, period. That didn't fly; the legislature insisted on a referendum in any jurisdiction that wanted to try it.
Faced with a referendum, why should the people vote "Yes?" Neither Seattle nor King County became a shining beacon of good government during its brief experience with public financing. No one points to Arizona and Maine, the two states that have had the longest experience with public financing, or to the cities of Portland and San Francisco, which also put public money into campaigns, as leaders of American governance. However, people in Arizona and Maine seem reasonably pleased with their systems, and during its 14 years of publicly funded campaigns, Seattle certainly didn't suffer.
"Many of the early reviews on the Maine and Arizona systems are reported to be positive," according to a report delivered recently to the King County Council. However, taking a broad national view, "the results of the public financing efforts appear to be mixed, with some models working well and others seeming to flounder. Some of the system models ... are still too new to ... truly evaluate their effectiveness. An example of a questionable result is shown in the Portland model."
It's hard to point out a great public funding success, concedes Washington Public Campaigns' board secretary, Terry Sullivan. But, says Sullivan, who helped found the group, it's easy to point out reasons why we should try it: The amounts of money spent on political campaigns are obscene. No one doubts that money buys political influence. The need to raise — or have — a lot of money keeps some otherwise-qualified candidates from running. Public funding brings more people, and different people, onto the field. The movement's poster child is Maine Representative Deborah Simpson, a waitress and single mom who ran for the legislature with public campaign funds and now chairs Maine's House Judiciary Committee.
"You'll never be able to prove the effect on cleanness," Radosevich suggested. "What you can show is that there are more competitive elections, and perhaps more diversity in candidates."
A lack of clear success stories poses less of a problem, Sullivan suggests, than the current tendency — encouraged by the media — to measure a candidate's seriousness by his or her ability to raise funds. Real candidates raise lots of cash.
Not if Seattle voters adopt the advisory committee's suggestion. The committee looked at two alternatives: matching a candidate's contributions at a ratio as high as 3 to 1; and giving a candidate who met some very low threshold for contributions a lump sum. A 6-3 majority favored the lump sum.
How would a candidate qualify? For a city council or city attorney race, she'd need 1,000 $10 contributions. For a mayoral race, she'd need 1,500. That would make a city council candidate eligible for $30,000 up front, another $110,000 for the primary as soon as an opponent filed and raised more than $10,000 of his own, and $100,000 for the general election. If an opposing candidate ignored the public finance system and raised a pile of cash, the public would then kick in extra funds to make it a fair contest. For a mayoral election, the public would kick in $105,000 as soon as a candidate qualified, $330,000 for an opposed primary, another $300,000 for the general election.
Different places have established different thresholds. The King County report talks about a $5 donation from at least one percent of the voters eligible to vote for that office in the general election. For a King County Executive campaign, this would mean corralling 9,948 registered voters. For a County Council race in District 5, it would mean corralling only 839.
Public funding is or should be basically a non-partisan issue, but when the King County Council voted to study it, all the Democrats voted yes, and all the Republicans voted no. "Part of it is a reflex reaction against taxes," Sullivan suggests. But in practice, he says, Republican candidates have used public funds just as much as Democrats have.
The big question is how Seattle or King County or any other jurisdiction that contemplates public financing will raise those funds. The King County report suggests that possibilities include a voluntary property tax checkoff, a special levy, a general fund appropriation, including the cost of elections as an element of general government overhead, using candidates' filing fees, using fines for violations of election law. But there's no way that, say, filing fees or fines would provide enough money. Indeed, the report observes, "Most local jurisdictions and at least some states rely on some form of annual general fund appropriation."
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