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ABQ election casts doubt on public funding

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

All three mayoral candidates in 2009 opted into Albuquerque’s public-financing system for campaigns.

Four years later, only one candidate sought and qualified for public funds – and he was trounced at the polls and outspent at a rate of more than two-to-one.

That has some politicos wondering whether the system ought to be scrapped altogether or, at the least, overhauled significantly.

“I think public financing has pretty well proven to be totally ineffective,” mayoral candidate Pete Dinelli said Monday, addressing his loss at the polls.

Two court decisions reshaped Albuquerque’s public-financing system after the 2009 mayoral race. First, a judge struck down the City Charter’s provision of “matching funds” to publicly financed candidates who are outspent by privately funded opponents.

Second, a prohibition on corporate contributions to privately financed candidates was struck down, making it easier for candidates to raise private money.

Public financing, however, remained popular in City Council races this year. Nine of 15 candidates participated in the system.

Councilor Isaac Benton, who was publicly funded, said it’s difficult, but not impossible to win, when outspent heavily. In his case, a private committee spent more than $70,000 in opposition to his candidacy. Benton had about $47,000 to spend, as did his opponent, Roxanna Meyers, who also was publicly funded.

“The ability to have unmatched private money, that certainly can be a distortion in a campaign,” Benton said. But “I really don’t know what to do about it.”

Participating candidates now get $1 per registered voter. That amounted to roughly $362,000 in this year’s mayoral campaign.

Mayor Richard Berry spent about $849,000 on his re-election bid.

Timothy Krebs, a University of New Mexico professor who studies urban politics, said $362,000 probably isn’t enough for a mayoral campaign in Albuquerque. Spending by challengers, he added, is linked to higher voter turnout.

“What’s required is a sufficient amount of money to mount a credible challenge,” Krebs said. “… The system is potentially undermined by candidates who opt out, but opting out is a perfectly reasonable strategy,” especially for an incumbent mayor.

Berry participated in public financing in 2009 but opted for private fundraising this time around. The decision was influenced, he said, by the possibility that privately funded political committees would spend heavily to defeat him.

Dinelli said the system ought to change if it remains in place. It should be easier to qualify, and candidates should get more money if they do, he said.

Dinelli had to collect $5 contributions from thousands of voters to qualify. That was difficult to do in only six weeks and with the city’s prohibition on accepting those payments through credit cards.

Those rules ought to be loosened, he said, and candidates ought to get $3 per voter to spend.

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