Washington candidates, campaigning on your dime

Public campaign financing might be on the ballot this November in Seattle and King County. While most people speak of public financing as a "cleaner" way to fund political campaigns, it remains to be seen whether it alone can create beacons of good government. The only compelling case to be made is that it diversifies the candidate roster.
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Campaign mailings, paid for by tax dollars?

Public campaign financing might be on the ballot this November in Seattle and King County. While most people speak of public financing as a "cleaner" way to fund political campaigns, it remains to be seen whether it alone can create beacons of good government. The only compelling case to be made is that it diversifies the candidate roster.

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."

Radosevich said that her group assumed some kind of general fund appropriation, but it has left the funding mechanism up to the city council. "I don't think that we view our charge as coming up with a funding mechanism," she said. "We're assuming that it takes general fund money to do it."

The sums needed would be trivial compared to overall city or county budgets, but not insignificant. Seattle's advisory committee calculated a range of $2.3 to $3.2 million per election. The county study suggests that funding a round of County Council and County Executive races using the county's old system would cost $1,785,000. Adopting the San Francisco or Arizona model would nearly double the cost, to $3.275 or $3.3 million. Do it the Portland way, and the cost rises to $7.2 million.

At a time of tight budgets and general economic pessimism, diverting any tax dollars to political campaigns may be a difficult sell. Spend a dollar on elections, and someone will point out that it's a dollar not spent on early childhood intervention programs or homeless shelters or police.

Indeed, Radosevich and two colleagues filed a minority report, explaining that the costs of lump-sum funding — as opposed to matching funds — would outweigh any foreseeable benefits. "Although the majority's recommendation is motivated by good intentions," they wrote, "it regrettably proposes a very expensive full public financing system without any evidence that the proposed system will achieve significant public good. It is not enough that public financing achieve some public good — Seattle has an abundance of unfunded or under-funded public needs. Instead, the issue is whether the purported public good from taxpayer funding of political campaigns justifies taking limited tax dollars away from other more concrete public goods like police and fire protection, parks, road maintenance, and human services."

Whether it's lump sum or matching, public financing of state supreme court and appellate court campaigns may be next. Washington Public Campaigns plans to push public financing of judicial campaigns in the 2009 legislature. Chances seem good. A lot of people have been appalled by recent infusions of interest group cash into judicial elections. Governor Chris Gregoire actually had legislation that would have required public funding of judicial campaigns introduced in last year's legislative session. It went nowhere. But basically, what's not to like? Does the public want, say, the Building Industry Association of Washington backing candidates for the Supreme Court? Judicial campaigning "is the classic place where we should have public financing," Radosevich said.

What about other state offices — the governor, say, or the legislature itself? "Republicans perceive [public funding of local campaigns] — and rightly so — as a foot in the door," Sullivan says. So far, public financing bills for state offices have fallen flat. Next year, Washington Public Campaigns will introduce another bill. If that fails, the group may run a statewide initiative in 2010. It's ironic, Sullivan says, but of course, if his group does that, Washington Public Campaigns will have to raise a lot of campaign funds.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.