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Home / Articles / News / Local News /  Political Price Tag
Rick Lass
Rick Lass doesn’t just write public campaign finance laws—he uses them, too!

Political Price Tag

City mulls publicly financed campaigns during lean times

December 17, 2008, 12:00 am
Back in March, taking money out of politics sounded good to Santa Fe voters, who overwhelmingly approved a measure to create publicly financed campaigns.

But in the months since Charter Amendment 4 passed with 61 percent of the vote, the city has realized it faces a $6 million budget shortfall.

Nixing the plan isn’t an option: The amendment requires the Council to pass a “meaningful” public campaign financing system by May 2010. Members of the Public Campaign Financing Advisory Committee, the group charged with drafting the ordinance, are ready to play hardball.

“They’ll have to pass this [in some form]—they have no choice,” Committee Member and former League of Women Voters of Santa Fe County President Jane Gaziano says. “They can say, ‘OK we don’t like it,’ and we can say, ‘Then go find another group and let [them] come up with something different.’”

With a few last-minute tweaks at its next, currently unscheduled meeting, the committee plans to pass the final draft. The proposed ordinance requires a $145,000 annual appropriation and potentially several million more in an election year.

“I was in a Finance Committee hearing the other day where they spent $700,000 on a bathroom and a refreshment stand at a park,” Advisory Committee Member and Common Cause Board Member Jim Harrington says. “So, $145,000 is not a big chunk of money and it’s pretty important to the political integrity of the city.”

The current draft requires the city to fully fund the campaigns of municipal candidates who swear off political fund-raising except for a specified number of $5 “qualifying contributions.” Participating mayoral candidates each would receive $60,000 while City Council and municipal judgeship candidates each would receive $15,000. A publicly financed candidate could receive up to three times the initial amount to match a privately backed opponent’s spending.

District 3 City Councilor Miguel Chavez, who opposed the charter amendment, says the taxpayers won’t need to pay for his campaign if he runs again.

“My thought is if the candidate is not able to organize a campaign, contact voters and raise enough money to support that campaign, maybe they shouldn’t be running,” Chavez says.

The committee also must decide what the city does if the annual appropriation doesn’t cover a crowded race. A mayoral race with five publicly financed candidates, for example, would cost between $300,000 and $900,000.

District 2 City Councilor Rosemary Romero says she would accept funding for her next campaign, however, she isn’t sure the city should commit itself fully.

“It is a real rough economic time and it has made us rethink a lot of things and this might be one that folks wouldn’t be as attached to doing immediately,” Romero says. “I’m open to starting with something smaller.”

‘Smaller’ could mean cutting the amount of funding to candidates or allowing candidates to augment public funds with limited private fund-raising.

These alternatives, some committee members say, undermine the whole point: leveling the playing field and eliminating the tradition of money-for-influence.

“You want to make it pass,” Gaziano says, “but you can’t sacrifice all the principles.”

But Chavez maintains it is always possible to circumvent principles. He points to the recent debacle of the District 3 Public Regulation Commission race, in which publicly financed Democratic candidate Jerome Block Jr. ultimately paid $21,700 for misuse of public money, including payment to a band that never played, and was questioned over campaign assistance from a regulated entity.

“I think people will still find ways to skirt the ordinance and find loopholes where they can collect the public financing and still take contributions from
individuals,” Chavez says.

Block’s Green Party opponent, Voting Matters Founding Director Rick Lass, sits on the committee and says these concerns are why “we want to make sure [the ordinance] has teeth to prevent that.”

However, the New Mexico Constitution bars cities from assessing penalties greater than $500 or 90 days in jail and from creating new felonies. Instead, the city’s Ethics & Campaign Review Board will be able to assign small fines and the city clerk will have the authority to demand a rule-breaking candidate refund all the city’s money. The district attorney also could prosecute under state criminal statutes, such as perjury.

“In addition, we worded it in such a way that the money they get is public money, entrusted to them, for the purposes stated in the ordinance,” Harrington says. “So, there might also be the possibility of embezzlement prosecution if somebody took the money and gave it to some band that didn’t play.”

 

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