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Time for meaningful public campaign financing in Santa Fe

In 2008, Santa Fe’s voters approved, by a nearly two-to-one margin, a charter amendment requiring the city council to “provide for meaningful public financing of campaigns for all municipal elected officials.” To carry out this mandate, the council adopted an ordinance modeled on the public financing systems then in effect in many other cities and states, including New Mexico, for judicial and PRC elections. The system provided a basic initial allowance for qualified candidates of $60,000 for mayor and $15,000 for council, plus a guarantee that the city would match, dollar for dollar up to a limit, any private spending in excess of these amounts by opposing candidates or PACs.

However, in 2011, before Santa Fe’s new system could be implemented, the provision for additional matching payments in all these laws, including Santa Fe’s, was held unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court opined that payments to publicly financed candidates “in direct response” to private spending by their opponents would “discourage” the privately financed candidates and PACs from exercising their constitutional right to spend whatever they wished.

Public financing advocates around the country responded by proposing a substitute method of protecting publicly financed candidates from heavy private spending that would pass constitutional muster. This proposal would allow candidates to supplement their initial allowances with small private contributions, typically $100 or less, and have these matched in some ratio by additional public payments. Such a system was adopted in Maine, San Francisco and elsewhere, and was passed by the New Mexico legislature in 2013, only to be vetoed by the governor.

“The City Different,” however, initially declined to follow suit. Facing a budget crunch at the time, the city decided to try operating the public financing system without any provision for access to additional funds for candidates confronting well-funded opponents. Though recognizing the risk, the council hoped that Santa Fe’s progressive electorate would prove resistant to attempts to overwhelm the system with opulent spending.

These hopes were dashed in the 2014 mayoral election, where a group of well-heeled private PACs entered the fray in support of one of the three publicly financed candidates, outspending every candidate and swarming the city with paid precinct-walkers and negative mailers. Their candidate won and the other two candidates, helpless to respond to this onslaught, felt betrayed by the system.

This lamentable outcome revived the proposal to allow publicly financed candidates to raise $100 contributions and have them matched with additional funds from the city. In early 2015, a bill presenting this proposal was sent to the council by the city’s Ethics and Campaign Review Board. What happened to the bill in the intervening years is a long story, but suffice it to say that it has now been reintroduced with new urgency by Councilor Romero-Wirth and will be considered again by the full council at a public hearing on Dec. 12. The consequences of further delay in its enactment are well illustrated by this year’s mayoral election, where only one of the five candidates used public financing and lavish private spending again dominated the campaigns.

Funding for this proposal is already in place. When the council initially refrained from replacing the matching system invalidated by the Supreme Court, it prudently decided to keep its options open by leaving intact the dedicated fund and the funding mechanism that had been designed to pay for that system. As proposed in the pending bill, these can now be applied to pay for the proposed new system. It is high time this funding was used to achieve what the voters envisioned when they overwhelmingly voted for “meaningful” public financing 10 years ago.

Harrington is state chair of Common Cause New Mexico. This view reflects the views of the organization.