Several weeks ago, there was a column in the SA Express-News endorsing the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA), a bill in Congress that provides for public financing of congressional campaigns. The premise of the FENA is that the corrupting influence of money in politics will be reduced by public financing of campaigns. Because I agree wholeheartedly with this premise, I wrote to my congressman Ciro Rodriguez urging him to support the bill. Rodriguez responded with a lengthy description of the bill, but failed to indicate whether he would support it. (See his response attached below.)
The issue of public financing of campaigns was fading from my radar until I saw an article in the NYTimes about NYC’s Campaign Finance Program. The article prompted an obvious question – why not adopt public financing of campaigns for local elections in San Antonio? Voters in San Antonio are so cynical about corruption in city government that they have adopted a draconian term-limits ordinance. Although this has helped some, there is still a prevailing view that people with money have too much influence in San Antonio government. Public financing of political campaigns would potentially minimize that influence.
How does the NYC program differ from the federal proposal? Qualifying in NYC is much less onerous. Whereas the federal proposal requires 1,500 in-state contributions of no more than $100 each for a total of at least $50k, the NYC program requires only 75 in-district contributors of no more than $175 for a total of at least $5,000. The federal payout to the campaign is also much larger – $360k for a primary, $540k for a general election, plus $4 for every dollar raised above $50k. By comparison, the NYC program pays candidates $6 for every $1 of qualifying contributions, up to a maximum of $92.4k in public financing and $168k total campaign spending. Both programs allow non-qualifying contributions above the $100/$175 qualifying caps. The NYC program seems clearly preferable for two reasons:
- Accessibility. The qualification requirements of the NYC program enable candidates without broad-based, well-organized campaigns to benefit from public financing. Because of the onerous requirements in the federal proposal, the rich will get richer and the poor will be marginalized even more.
- Controlling spending. The NYC program attempts to control the costs of campaigns by limiting participating candidates to absolute maximums, whereas the federal proposal merely sweetens the pot without placing any absolute maximums.
While researching the NYC program, I learned that two states – Maine and Arizona – have more than a decade of experience with public financing of campaigns and that two cities – Albuquerque, NM and Portland, OR – have experience with public financing since 2005. All four of these jurisdictions have adopted what is generally called “Clean Elections” systems. Under a generic Clean Elections system, candidates wishing to receive public financing must collect a certain number of small qualifying contributions, usually $5, from registered voters. In return, the candidates are paid a flat sum by the government to run their campaigns, and they agree not to raise money from private sources. The following is a thumbnail description of each jurisdiction:
- Maine adopted its Maine Clean Election Act via voter initiative in 1996. Legislative candidates qualify for public financing if they obtain $5 contributions from 60 voters in a state rep’s district and 175 for a senator. The total payout to the campaign equals the average campaign costs in the two previous elections. The qualifying period is more than three months and there is a $100-contribution limit on seed money to assist in collecting contributions, up to a total of $500 for state reps and $1,500 for senators.
- Arizona adopted its Citizen’s Clean Election Act via a voter initiative in 1998. Legislative candidates qualify for public financing if they obtain $5 contributions from 220 voters. A qualified candidate is entitled to $14,319 in the primary and $21,479 in the general election – approx. 20×1. Seed money is limited to a total of $3,580, with $140 per contribution and $640 for a personal contribution.
- Albuquerque, NM adopted its Open and Ethical Election system in 2005. Candidates qualify for public financing if they obtain $5 contributions from 1% of the registered voters in their district during a 45-day window. In the mayoral contest, a candidate would need to obtain $5 contributions from 3,280 registered voters and then would receive $328,000 for the campaign. Essentially the public financing is 20×1.
- Portland, OR adopted its Voter-Owned Elections system in 2005. Candidates qualify for public financing if they obtain $5 contributions from 1,000 registered voters. They are also allowed to collect seed money of up to $100 ($20k total). Qualified candidates receive $200,000 (less their seed money and qualifying contributions) for their campaign – 40×1. The qualifying period is over four months long.
From the four jurisdictions with Clean Election laws, we can glean that qualifying contributions of $5 seems to be a good number. For some reason, the two cities require a relatively high number of qualifying contributions (around 1% of the voters), whereas the two states require a more attainable number. All the systems place an absolute cap on the total amount of spending allowed, and private money plays no role except as “seed money.” The amount of the cap seems to depend on the cost of communications in the jurisdiction.
How would public financing work in San Antonio. Currently, the only campaign restrictions in SA are contribution limits of $500 for council positions and $1,000 for mayor. The municipal code provides the following objective for these limits:
- “It is essential in a democratic system that the public has confidence in the integrity, independence, and impartiality of those who are elected to act on their behalf in government. There is a public perception that a relationship exists between substantial contributions and access to elected officials. To diminish the perceived or actual connection between contributions and influence, the City adopts this Campaign Finance Code to promote public confidence and, it is hoped, a greater degree of citizen participation in the electoral process.”
Although the $500 limit on contributions to council elections avoids the most egregious forms of political corruption, there can be no question that lowering the contribution limit to $5 would truly level the playing field. The main issue is whether the number of required contributions should be set (a) high so that only broad-based, well-organized campaigns can qualify for public financing or (b) low so that new, unknown candidates are encouraged to enter the arena. Because the latter is clearly preferable, I suggest a threshold of only .5% of the registered voters, which would be about 300 contributors for a council district in San Antonio. (I collected 600 signatures in 60 days to get on the 23rd Congressional district ballot, and that was no mean feat even without a $5 contribution.)
The second most important issue is to establish a maximum amount that a campaign is authorized to spend. According to 18-month campaign finance filings by SA’s current council members, their campaign spending varies significantly from district to district – from a low of $16k in District 5 to a high of $58k in District 1, with an average of about $40k. From this we can conclude that $45k is enough to run an adequate campaign. If we were to allow candidates to collect up to 600 $5 contributions, and then match each contribution with public financing of $70, a campaign could have a total of $45k when combining public financing and $5 contributions.
This is a winning plan that I will present to the Council for their consideration. I will also need to follow-up with Ciro to suggest that, although public financing is a good idea, the federal Fair Elections Now Act is seriously flawed.
Ciro’s responsive email
Ciro provided me with the following lengthy response, but didn’t really take a position:
Dear Mr. Kueber:
Thank you for your support of H.R. 1826, the Fair Elections Now Act. I appreciate your comments and I am pleased to respond to your inquiry.
The Fair Elections Now Act was introduced by Rep John B. Larson (D-CT) on March 31, 2009. This legislation amends the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA). The purpose of H.R.1826 is to encourage federal candidates to run for office without depending on big donors for contribution. This will limit influence on elected officials as well as limit “political paybacks.” Furthermore, this will encourage candidates to seek support from their communities, and pay attention to the needs of their community.
In brief, the bill would create a Fair Election Fund to match small contributions of less than $100 from individuals in their state. Qualified candidates would receive Fair Elections funding in the primary, and if they win, in their general election at a level to run a competitive campaign.
Please be assured that I understand the importance of curbing campaign contributions from corporations, which may lead to an unfair election process. It is imperative to hold lawmakers accountable to the American people. The citizens of this country should be able to trust the integrity of the Houses of Representatives and their elected officials. This act attempts to address these concerns.
H.R. 1826 has been referred to the House Committees on Energy & Commerce, Administration, and Ways & Means of which several committee hearings have been held. Although I do not sit on those committees, should the H.R. 1826 come up in the House for a vote, I will keep your concerns in mind. Again, thank you for your comments regarding this issue. If you have any further questions or concerns, please feel free to contact my office.
Ciro D. Rodriguez
Member of Congress