Ethics board says young public campaign finance system need workLocal NewsWednesday, December 17, 2014
Remember the city election? And how spending by political action committees counteracted the first mayoral test of public campaign financing?
It's been nine months since city voters elected a new mayor and new councilors to office. The election saw all three mayoral candidates, including winner Javier Gonzales, opt into public financing to presumably limit special interest money in the election. Instead, multiple political action committees backed by organized labor spent nearly $60,000—the same total amount the mayoral candidates got from public financing—supporting Gonzales and giving him what some criticized as a lopsided edge to winning the race.
Gonzales publicly denounced the outside spending and after being elected said he'd work to strengthen the city's public finance laws to prevent some of these problems in future elections.
Now, the city's Ethics and Campaign Review Board is reviving that discussion.
Things are still pretty preliminary. In a meeting Wednesday afternoon, the board appointed a subcommittee—a move that shouldn't surprise people familiar with how the ECRB does business—to brainstorm ideas to reform the city's public campaign model.
Board members floated some of these perceived problems at the meeting.
"I want to prioritize what went wrong," board member Ruth Kovnat told her colleagues.
Kovnat said there's still a lack of clarity over when a public financed campaign begins. This issue came up in the election when mayoral candidate Patti Bushee paid her former campaign manager money owed from before her campaign decided to seek public financing.
Kovnat also said she's concerned with whether the city's campaign code is adequate in attracting candidates to public financing. All of the members expressed concern over how to tackle the issue of outside political action committee spending.
The ECRB subcommittee, which board members Kovnat, Tara Lujan and Paul Biderman will serve on, is next set to meet and come up with a list of issues to bring to the the full board in January.
Former city Councilor Karen Heldmeyer, a familiar face in local civic issues, raised concerns about subcommittee's potential to take the conversation of campaign reform behind closed doors.
"Subcommittees do not meet in public," she told the board. "I think you need to hear a wide-ranging set of ideas from the public."
Chairman Justin Miller says the board plans to do just that. He and other members say they want the public to bring as many ideas for reforming the campaign finance code to them at future meetings as possible.
The ECRB's goal to come up with a list of recommendations for City Council to pass into law. The matter could take months or even longer, and Heldmeyer urged the board to move quickly.
"Only by discussing and facing the issues that came up during the last election can we prevent similar problems from occurring in 2016, which will be here faster than we think," she wrote in a prepared statement to the board before the meeting.
Kovnat suggested the board start meeting as frequently as every two weeks until it figures the reforms out.
Ideas for reforms are already surfacing. Jim Harrington, state director of Common Cause New Mexico, suggests that publicly financed candidates be allowed to raise more money when outside money supports their opponents. Under Harrington's suggestion, publicly financed candidates would be able no more than $100 per individual donor. The city would then match those donations by a four-to-one ratio. The city would stop matching the donations once it spends $120,000—which itself would require the candidate to raise privately from at least 300 different people.