Seattle City Council considers public financing of campaigns

Campaign contributions of less than $100 in Seattle City Council races dropped by almost half from 2001 to 2011, while the average contribution nearly doubled — from $115 to $223. And incumbents in both the council and mayoral races have won re-election almost 85 percent of the time.

To counter the influence of money in city politics and open the door to more challengers, the Seattle City Council is considering adopting a public-financing program for city elections.

The council could place a ballot measure before voters in the August primary or the November general election. Funding options include a property-tax measure that might cost homeowners one or two cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or using the city’s general fund.

The council has asked the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission to recommend a public-financing plan by March that includes how much public money candidates for each city office would receive, the amount they would have to raise themselves to qualify for public funding and the estimated cost.

The council and the commission will host a forum Thursday night at Seattle University with representatives from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, cities that have, or have had, publicly financed campaigns.

A Public Financing Advisory Committee in 2008 recommended the city move to a taxpayer-funded plan and put the price tag at about $2.5 million per election, but the recession hit and the City Council shelved the idea.

“The cost just wasn’t tenable,” said council President Sally Clark. Cost will also be a factor with the current proposal, she said.

“There will be a price tag. There’s no question about that,” she said.

Supporters say public financing can increase the competitiveness of city races, reduce the financial barriers for less well-connected candidates and increase the role of small donors.

But critics say there’s little evidence that existing public-financing programs attract more candidates or eliminate the power of incumbency. What’s more, election shenanigans including voter-signature fraud and misuse of public funds have soured some voters in cities that have such a system.

Portland adopted a public-financing plan in 2005, then narrowly voted to shut it down in 2010. Debbie Aiona, action chair for the Portland League of Women Voters, said that as the economy faltered, some people questioned public financing when the city budget was being slashed.

There also were residents who didn’t want their tax dollars going to a candidate whose views they didn’t support

And the Portland financing plan was hurt in the first election cycle when one person, gathering signatures to qualify candidates for public financing, forged voter names. A candidate who did qualify paid her 16-year-old daughter $15,000 to run her campaign office and additional public money to pay her home-phone bill.

“There were no problems in subsequent election cycles, but that stain on the program came back to haunt us,” Aiona said.

On the other hand, she said, many more people jumped into races and spent more time debating issues and meeting voters instead of “dialing for dollars,” she said. And instead of the majority of donations coming from downtown and wealthy neighborhoods, the publicly funded candidates received donations from across the city.

San Francisco adopted a partial public-financing plan in 2000 financed by the city’s general fund. John St. Croix, executive director of the San Francisco Ethics Commission, said public financing has attracted a modest increase in the number of candidates and more fundraising at the district level, where candidates have to raise 1,000 contributions of $100 to qualify for public financing.

“It’s clear that some grass-roots candidates have run who otherwise wouldn’t have had the resources,” St. Croix said.

But he also acknowledged that the program is divisive. “Some people love it. Some people hate it. Our job is to administer it.”

Any Seattle public-financing plan also would have to pass legal muster. Many existing programs had provisions that gave additional funding to candidates if their opponent raised more in private money than what was given in public funding.

But the Supreme Court in 2011 ruled in an Arizona case that such rescue funds aren’t constitutional because they punish privately funded candidates for successful fundraising.

“There can’t be punishments or disincentives to free speech,” said William Maurer, executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter, who argued the Supreme Court case.

He questioned whether public financing achieved the desired aims.

“There’s no evidence that public financing does much of anything at all,” he said.

Maurer said that if Seattle wants cheaper elections with more candidates, it should switch to district elections rather than at-large contests.

A group of Seattle activists has filed a charter-amendment petition to elect council members by district. Supporters must gather 31,000 signatures by the August primary to qualify for the November general election.

Councilmember Nick Licata, a proponent of public financing, said adopting a program in Seattle “isn’t going to be a silver bullet” that eliminates the influence of money in local races.

But he added, “We hope it can make it easier for grass-roots candidates and also increase the role of small contributions. It could be a useful tool to get more people engaged in the election process,” he said.