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Editorial: Public campaign financing doesn’t level playing field

Anyone hoping that public campaign financing would level the playing field for candidates and eliminate the influence of deep-pocketed donors need look no further than our upcoming mayoral race to see the folly in that thinking about the civic initiative.

Mayoral candidate Tim Keller qualified for public financing by submitting $5 contributions from more than 3,802 registered city voters. The 3,802 represents 1 percent of the city’s registered voters. And 3,802 times $5 equals $19,010.

By soliciting at least $19,010, Keller has received roughly $380,000 in city funds, minus the total money he raised in $5 contributions, to run his campaign.

A few months after Keller obtained public financing, a “measure finance committee” calling itself ABQ Forward Together, announced it was forming “to support Tim Keller’s bid for mayor of Albuquerque.”

The group, which is soliciting contributions on its website and has no limit on the size of donations it may accept, was quick to point out that it is not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee – meaning it hasn’t “coordinated” its efforts with Keller or anyone connected to his campaign, which isn’t allowed.

As a publicly financed candidate, Keller cannot accept any other campaign contributions – but it’s perfectly legal for an unconnected political group to raise money and spend it to help Keller’s mayoral run.

Unlike “dark money” organizations that can raise unlimited funds to support a candidate or undermine an opponent, measure finance committees must disclose their donors.

Still, well-meaning attempts to put candidates on equal financial footing and end the constant cycle of fundraising by candidates through the generous offer of public campaign financing has failed to deliver.

Instead, it has become a windfall for those able to qualify – typically politicians who already have a base of voters and a readily available campaign organization – and a detriment to those they’re running against.

Perhaps it’s time to throw in the towel on public campaign financing and face the reality that, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, money is speech, and speech is protected.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.