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Let’s fix public financing instead of tossing concept

When your boat has a hole in the bottom, you don’t get rid of the water by cutting another hole, but that’s what at least one Albuquerque mayoral candidate thinks should happen to the city’s successful public campaign finance system. It’s the wrong strategy.

But first, some history.

In 2005, Albuquerque voters overwhelmingly – 69 percent – approved a ballot initiative to raise the voices of everyday people in the political process and give people the ability to run for office without having to rely on big contributions. That system, called the Open and Ethical Elections fund, gives candidates for city council and mayor public funds to run for office after showing broad public support by collecting a set number of small contributions.

In 2009, all three mayoral candidates used the system and five out of eight City Council candidates qualified for public financing. All participating city council candidates won their elections.

In 2011, we had four City Council seats up for election, with six total candidates. Four of the candidates took participated in the system, and three of them won their seats (the fourth was running against another publicly financed candidate).

And this year, one mayoral candidate took public financing, in addition to nine of the 15 City Council candidates who also took public financing.

Instead of scrapping the system, as Pete Dinelli suggested after losing his race, the council should move forward with improvements to address recent changes in the legal environment. As noted in recent Albuquerque Journal articles, the system is facing a challenge that arises from a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision which held unconstitutional the part of the law that allowed participating candidates to obtain additional matching funds when they were outspent by privately financed opponents.

That means participating candidates may not be able to keep up with privately financed opponents. And while money doesn’t always buy elections, you have to have enough to compete.

And while candidates who are outspent can still win – as evidenced by the Isaac Benton and Roxanne Meyers race where Benton was outspent by a PAC more than 2 to 1 – the system needs to be updated to remain viable for candidates.

They should follow the example of the Legislature.

In the 2013 legislative session, Common Cause New Mexico supported a bill sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth to fix the state public financing system for judges and Public Regulation Commission commissioners. That bill passed the Senate 33-7 and passed the House of Representatives 68-0. Unfortunately, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the bill, citing constitutional concerns.

We have answered her concerns, and are working to gain her support.

A fix bill in Albuquerque will not cost the city any extra money. It doesn’t expand the current system; it only fixes the current one.

A robust public campaign financing system cuts the corrupting influence of private campaign contributions out of our democracy. As newly-elected City Councilor Diane Gibson says, “I support public financing without reservation because campaigns should be focused on issues and commitment to public service. Campaigns should not be bought and sold by special interests with deep pockets.”

The foundation of the program remains strong, but it is now necessary to amend the City Charter.

Common Cause New Mexico and Public Campaign urge the Albuquerque City Council to fix the public financing system and bring it in line with these recent court rulings.

Changing the City Charter is no easy feat – you need either seven of nine councilors, or you need to put it on the ballot and have voters decide. Both options are doable, and we are asking the Albuquerque City Council for help in fixing our public financing system.

From the City Council to Congress, more and more money is flooding our elections, drowning out the voices of everyday people.

Albuquerque shouldn’t let the boat sink. Let’s fix the system.

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