The Albuquerque Journal published an editorial (Sept. 13) “Democracy Dollars can’t add up without a real bottom line” misleading readers by claiming Democracy Dollars – a proposed enhancement to the City of Albuquerque Open and Ethical Elections Code – (could require additional taxpayer funding). The questionable analysis unnecessarily scares voters with the tired “new taxes” boogie man.
Albuquerque’s current public financing system was approved by 69% of city voters back in 2005. The reason: Voters believed this was a good way to reduce the influence of large campaign donors on elections and decision-making for candidates running for City Council or mayor. They were right. In the first mayoral election under the new system in 2009, all three mayoral candidates – including the incumbent mayor who had raised more than $1 million from companies with direct interests in city business in the previous election – chose to run under the public financing system. Unfortunately, a Supreme Court decision in 2011 invalidated a key matching provision of the Albuquerque system and put future publicly financed candidates at a huge disadvantage.
Under the current Albuquerque system, anyone seeking to use public financing for their campaign must meet a series of requirements to qualify. For starters, any city candidate must obtain qualifying $5 contributions from a minimum of 1% of registered city voters for mayor or 1% of district voters for Council. That roughly translates to a minimum of 3,300 $5 donations to be able to qualify for public funding for the mayor’s race.
However, without matching funds to help offset large private donations, publicly financed candidates are still at a disadvantage. In the last election, several privately-financed mayoral candidates raised two to three times what the one publicly financed candidate raised. Democracy Dollars would address that by making publicly financed candidates more competitive and more accountable to voters – not big donors.
The city elections charter allows for one tenth of 1% of the city’s approved general fund to be allocated for public financing. The fund has been solvent since it was established almost 15 years ago, despite being used by numerous candidates for mayor and City Council. Even if the Journal’s predictions were to come true, and many more candidates used the public financing program for their campaigns and depleted the fund, the first route to address this issue would be to revise the funding formula, a rational and common-sense solution, not immediately looking at raising taxes.
The writers of the editorial suggest that the same problems with other public financing programs, specifically those used by the state Public Regulation Commission and the city of Santa Fe, will plague Albuquerque’s Democracy Dollars proposal. The very point of the proposed changes to the Albuquerque system are to address these challenges by making it more transparent for voters and more viable for candidates who refuse large private campaign contributions. It’s hard to understand why the Journal would not want to minimize the role of powerful donors in local elections.
The larger and more fundamental question is whether one tenth of one percent of the city budget is worth keeping special interests from controlling city elections. We think most voters and taxpayers would say it is.