Editorial: ‘Democracy Dollars’ can’t add up without a real bottom line

Interesting, isn’t it, how each twist and turn of public financing laws in New Mexico seems to teach its own lesson?

A Public Regulation Commission race in 2014 demonstrated how unopposed candidates for office could and would rake in thousands, even tens of thousands, of public dollars to campaign against – nobody.

The next year, a Santa Fe mayoral race showed the weak spots in that local system – far from getting big money out of elections, it turned out big unions can be very clever in finding ways around the intent of rules.

Two years ago in Albuquerque, supporters of now-Mayor Tim Keller’s race walked right through a loophole that allowed them to pay for campaign expenses while the candidate himself collected some $380,000 of the public’s money – prompting the City Clerk’s Office to update the definition of in-kind contributions to exclude cash.

So Albuquerqueans should take a long, hard look before voting to overhaul the city’s public financing system this November. It’s not that the current system doesn’t need changing. It’s that, once again, taxpayers are being asked to take the leap of faith that this time, it really will get more average folks to run, more candidates to find the middle as they try to appeal to a wider swath of voters, and more voters invested in who runs their government.

Journal reporter Jessica Dyer wrote Sept. 4 that city residents will vote Nov. 5 on “Democracy Dollars,” a Seattle program that would provide eligible city residents with a $25 taxpayer-funded coupon to give to their eligible candidate of choice in a city election – funds on top of those provided under the current system, which gives qualified candidates block grants based on the race or the size of their district.

All that expanded participation sure sounds good, but this initiative has been kicking around for years and rejected not once but twice by the Bernalillo County Commission. Commissioners last year raised concerns of constitutionality via logrolling (multiple issues within a question, including the $25 coupon and increasing the amount of seed money for mayoral candidates from $1 to $1.75 per registered voter) and legal costs to defend what amounts to a law written by someone who’s not on the hook for any problems that arise.

That bottom-line problem goes right back to taxpayers.

Since the program is a “citizen initiative” – backed by organizations including Olé, Equality New Mexico, Common Cause New Mexico, the Center for Civic Policy and the Working Families Party – city government has exactly zero plans to perform a cost analysis on it.

Well, unless and until it is passed into law and its ground rules are established. That’s working backward.

Meanwhile, there are 3.7 million of your tax dollars in the Open and Ethical Elections Fund. On one hand, those can go quickly with multiple mayoral candidates authorized for $380K each and Council hopefuls at around $40K each. Toss in the added $25 a resident (not registered voter) and the fact the proposal seems to allow the Council to raise the amounts whenever to whatever. According to Dyer’s reporting, Democracy Dollars could potentially double the funds funneled into the campaign coffers of participating candidates. So when the fund is exhausted in one or two election cycles, taxpayers again will be expected to fork over more cash.

On the other hand, except for well-known politicians with campaign machines, this does nothing to help a wanna-be candidate meet the burden of qualifying for public financing, much less accrue many $25 contributions.

Either way, Democracy Dollars doesn’t add up.

Voters deserve a vetted proposal with a clue as to the “cost” side of the cost-benefit equation. New Mexico’s never met a public financing program it couldn’t complicate and abuse. How many times do we need to be burned before we’re a little shy?

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.

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