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Public financing on the cheap has failed

SANTA FE, N.M. — A city-appointed panel of attorneys and citizens is now exploring ways to improve Santa Fe’s public campaign finance system and fix the problems exposed by the heavy PAC spending in the last election.

Not content to await the panel’s recommendations, the Journal’s editors have preemptively produced their own wrongheaded analysis, declared the panel’s task hopeless, pronounced the system a failure and urged its repeal.

The best corrective for such hasty misjudgment is a bit of history. Santa Fe’s public financing system was mandated by a charter amendment approved by nearly two-thirds of the voters in 2008. Fulfilling the charter’s command to create a “meaningful” system, the council adopted a public financing law, modeled on previous enactments in other cities and states (including New Mexico for its PRC and judicial elections), which afforded a robust deterrent against attempts to subvert the system by heavy private spending.

The ordinance provided that, besides the basic stipend given to every candidate qualifying for public financing, any publicly financed candidate facing heavy spending by privately financed opponents or PACs would receive additional funds to match that spending dollar for dollar. The council recognized that this provision of the ordinance might prove costly, but was willing to incur that cost to free city officials from the influence of private campaign spending and it funded the system accordingly.

Jim Harrington.

Jim Harrington.

Before the first election was held under the new law, however, it was dealt a serious blow by a Supreme Court decision known as Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett (not Citizens United, as the editors mistakenly state). That decision held that additional payments given to publicly financed candidates “in direct response” to private spending by their opponents were constitutionally impermissible because they would tend to “discourage” the privately financed candidates and PACs from exercising their right to spend whatever they please.

The reaction by advocates in the many jurisdictions where such additional payments were prescribed by the law was to propose a substitute means of protecting publicly financed candidates from heavy private spending that would pass constitutional muster.

This proposal would allow them to supplement their basic allowances with small private contributions, typically $100 or less, and have these matched in some ratio by additional public payments. A system like this was adopted in San Francisco and Connecticut, and was passed by the New Mexico legislature before being vetoed by the governor in 2013.

“The City Different,” however, responded differently to the court’s ruling. Finding itself in a budget crunch and seeing an opportunity to economize, the city decided, with my organization’s reluctant acquiescence, to try operating the public financing system without any provision for access to additional funds for candidates who found themselves facing well-funded opposition.

Though recognizing this would be risky, the council hoped that Santa Fe’s enlightened brand of politics would provide a sufficient defense against attempts to buy our elections.

Although it worked well in the 2012 council election, this bare-bones system proved no match for the well-heeled professionals who entered the fray on the side of one of the three publicly financed candidates in last year’s mayor’s race, forming PACs that outspent every candidate and swarmed the city with paid door-knockers and glossy negative mailers. Their favored candidate won and the other two candidates, helpless to respond to this onslaught, felt betrayed by the system.

This narrative demonstrates, however, that this outcome represented, not a failure of public financing, but rather a failed attempt to do it on the cheap, relying on a now discredited belief in the unique virtue of Santa Fe’s voters and politicians. We have now seen that a big-money takeover of our elections is as great a threat here as anywhere else and can be thwarted only by applying sufficient resources to the task.

Instead of surrendering to the mercenaries, as the Journal has urged, the city should respond to this challenge as other jurisdictions have – by amending our law to let publicly financed candidates raise small contributions and thereby earn additional matching payments from the city.

Yes, this would probably cost more than the spartan system we have tried to get away with, but we are fortunate to still have in place a dedicated fund that was originally endowed with enough money to defray the cost of what would have been an even more expensive system than the one now proposed. It is time to use that money to achieve the goal envisioned by the voters when they overwhelmingly voted for “meaningful” public financing six years ago.

Jim Harrington is state chair for Common Cause.

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