The following and edited Guest Editorial written by Benjamin Ahern Wild that was published on Sunday, June 2, 2019 in the Albuquerque Journal. Mr. Wild is a candidate in the UNM Master Of Science In Public Administration. The Guest Editorial is followed by a link to the full article with additional Commentary and Analysis.
(EDITORS NOTE: There are two deletions made to Mr. Wild’s editorial letter 1. the total number of candidates running are 16 and not 14, and 2. the number of candidates who qualified for public finance are 10 and not one.)
TITLE: Albuquerque Needs Public Financing Fix
BY: BENJAMIN AHERN WILD / CANDIDATE, UNM MASTER’S OF SCIENCE IN PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION PROGRAM
Sunday, June 2nd, 2019
“In the last few days leading up (to) the deadline for (Albuquerque) City Council candidates to qualify for public financing, there is a familiar scramble for $5 contributions as seen during previous municipal election cycles. However, this year, things were supposed to be different.
Due to a newly instated rule, candidates are no longer limited to collecting the qualifying contributions in cash and can now accept online donations. Online contributions help candidates scale back their canvassing efforts and digitally reach more residents. In theory, this new rule makes qualifying for public financing more accessible. Unfortunately, we are still seeing some candidates struggle to qualify, just as many others have in the past. And with this system’s persisting inadequacy, candidates who don’t qualify will have to switch their filing to private financing. Therefore, what impact does this new rule have on reducing corruption by removing monetary influence on politicians?
Currently, there are four City Council seats that are up for election, (in) Districts 2, 4, 6 and 8.
[O]ur current system historically favors incumbents and previously elected officials. This favoritism can be observed from the inception of our public funding system and particularly in City Council races. Additionally, more candidates fail than succeed at qualifying for public funding. This suggests a need for the City Council to once again reevaluate the efficacy of our public funding option.
To truly make elections more inclusive and reduce monetary influence in politics, then we must limit the fundraising capacity of privately financed campaigns. Currently there are no limits for privately financed candidates and how much they can fundraiser or spend. And the only fundraising limit that does exist is the individual contribution maximum of $1,500 per person. Whereas private candidates can leverage unrestricted fundraising, public candidates are drastically disadvantaged, and as a result the system is undermined.
The necessary limits for privately financed campaigns must be comparable to the spending amount which publicly funded candidates receive. Additionally, the individual contribution limit should better reflect the median household income of Albuquerque residents and their capacity to donate to political campaigns.
This imbalance hasn’t always been the case; before June 27, 2011, there was a matching-funds provision which ensured a competitive amount of funds to each public candidate. However, a United States Supreme Court decision ruled that a matching-fund provision is unconstitutional. Since then, city officials haven’t successfully adjusted our system to correct for this legal change.
Another issue with the public versus private financing systems is the lack of regulation on Measure Finance Committees. … Measure Finance Committees act similarly to PACs and Super PACs by fundraising and spending on behalf of issues/candidates which they support. Once limits exist for privately financed candidates, then there is a need to evaluate the regulation of MFCs.
Another proposed option warranting public discourse is the possibility of changing from our current “all or nothing” model to a “tiered system” of public funding. This different model would match public funds to the number of qualifying donations that each candidate receives. Effectively, candidates would receive funds that correlate to the number of contributions they collect. This would guarantee funds to each candidate based on a percentage of the maximum amount.
Lastly, though this new rule increases the candidates’ reach, it doesn’t address that a $5 contribution can be too expensive for some residents of Albuquerque. We must honor all citizens’ invitation for increased participation in civic engagement by not pricing them out.
The evidence from this current election cycle indicates a need for more change, and these issues highlight a persisting need for the continued improvement of our public financing system.”
MAYOR TIM KELLER’S $1.3 MILLION RACE FOR MAYOR
During the 2017 Municipal election for Mayor, then New Mexico State Auditor Tim Keller was the only candidate out of 8 candidate who collected the 3,500 required $5.00 donations to qualify for public finance. During his successful run for Mayor, Tim Keller repeatedly said he was “walking the talk” on curbing big money in the municipal election by going the public finance route. The problem with Tim Keller saying he was “walking the talk” is that he was also the only candidate that had 3 measured finance committees who raised and spent thousands of dollars on his behalf to get him elected Mayor.
According to the City Clerk’s 2017 campaign finance reports, Tim Keller was given a total of $506,254 in public finance combined for the first election and the runoff and he collected $37,870 in “in kind” donations.
Notwithstanding being a public finance candidate, Keller had three (3) measured finance committees that either raised money directly to spend on his behalf or that indirectly spent money and supported his candidacy financially.
ABQ Forward Together was the measured finance committee that was formed specifically to raise money to promote Tim Keller for Mayor and it was managed by one of Tim Keller’s former campaign managers Neri Olguin for one of his previous State Senate runs. Sources have confirm that Neri Olguin is now the campaign manager for City Councilors Isaac Benton and Pat Davis who are running for reelection. Olguin was responsible for making sure Benton and Davis gathered enough $5.00 donations to secure public finance and have charged each upwards of $15,000.
ABQ Forward Together raised $663,000, with major contributions from organized labor including city unions such as AFSME to support Keller.
The measured finance committee ABQFIREPAC, organized by the City’s local Fire Union raised $67,000 with that money spent to help not only Keller but also Democrat City Council candidates, including Diane Gibson. ABQFIREPAC spent at least $25,000 for a TV commercial benefiting Keller, yards signs and a freeway billboard.
The measured finance committee ABQ Working Families also supported Tim Keller and raised $122,000.
Broken down, at least $1,169,254 minimum was been spent on Tim Keller’s campaign for Mayor ($506,254 public finance money + $663,000 ABQ Forward = $1,169,254 total).
Broken down further, $1,358,254 was actually spent on Tim Keller’s campaign for Mayor ($506,254 public finance money + $663,000 ABQ Forward + $67,000 ABQFIREPAC + $122,000 ABQ Working Families = $1,358,254.)
The final tab for the 2017 Mayor’s race reflects Republican Dan Lewis raised and spent $847,000 in private donations to Democrat Tim Keller’s minimum of $1,169,254 spent or up to $1,358,254 spent.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
The guest commentary was accurate when it said: “To truly make elections more inclusive and reduce monetary influence in politics, then we must limit the fundraising capacity of privately financed campaigns. Currently there are no limits for privately financed candidates and how much they can fundraiser or spend. … Another issue with the public versus private financing systems is the lack of regulation on Measure Finance Committees. … Measure Finance Committees act similarly to PACs and Super PACs by fundraising and spending on behalf of issues/candidates which they support. Once limits exist for privately financed candidates, then there is a need to evaluate the regulation of MFCs.”
Over two years ago, Democratic Albuquerque City Councilors Pat Davis and Diane Gibson served on a task force to overhaul Albuquerque’s public finance laws. Both Pat Davis and Diane Gibson refused to advocate meaningful changes to our public finance laws making it easier for candidates to qualify for public finance. Gibson actually said “it’s supposed to be hard to qualify and it keeps out people who are not serious candidates”, as if Gibson should ever be the one to decide who are serious candidates given the fact she has been a disaster as a City Councilor.
City hall insiders do not take Gibson seriously and cringe when she speaks during council meetings. At one time Gibson told her constituents that she was tired of “carrying the Mayor’s water on ART” when she voted repeatedly to fund the ART Bus project.
(For more on Gibson see: https://www.petedinelli.com/2017/05/26/city-councilor-diane-gibson-needs-to-be-voted-out-of-office/)
The only changes both Pat Davis and Diane Gibson agreed to on the task force was increasing the amount of money candidates get. Both did not want the process of collecting donations made easier by expanding the time to collect qualifying donations. The lack of changes to the public finance laws favors incumbents like Pat Davis, Isaac Benton and Diane Gibson, they know it and have acted accordingly with their votes on the City Council when it comes to public finance.
Major changes are needed in city’s public finance ordinance to level the playing field for candidates for municipal office. Following are further recommendations for changes to the City’s public finance laws outlined in a January 2, 2018 blog article on the city’s public finance ordinance:
1. Allow four (4) months and two (2) weeks, from January 1 to May 15, to collected both the qualifying donations and petition signatures, and private campaign donation collection.
2. Allow the collection of the qualifying donations from anyone who wants, and not just residents or registered voters of Albuquerque. Privately finance candidates now can collect donations from anyone they want and anywhere in the State and Country.
3. Once the allowed number of qualifying donations is collected, the public financing would be made immediately available, but not allowed to be spent until starting May 15.
4. Permit campaign spending for both publicly financed and privately financed candidates only from May 15 to the November election day.
5. Return to candidates for their use in their campaign any qualifying donations the candidate has collected when the candidate fails to secure the required number of qualifying donations to get the public financing.
6. Mandate the City Clerk to issue debit card or credit card collection devices to collect the qualifying donations and to issue receipts and eliminate the mandatory use of “paper receipts”.
7. Increase from $1.00 to $2.50 per registered voter the amount of public financing, which will be approximately $900,000, and allow for incremental increases of 10% every election cycle keeping up with inflation.
8. Allow for additional matching public financing available for run offs at the rate of $1.25 per registered voter, or $450,000.
9. Albuquerque should make every effort to make municipal elections partisan elections to be held along with State and Federal elections by seeking a constitutional amendment from the legislature to be voted upon by the public.
10. Any money raised and spent by measured finance committees on behalf a candidate should be required to first be applied to reimburse the City for any taxpayer money advanced to a public finance candidate or deducted from a publicly financed candidates account and returned to the city.
11. City of Albuquerque campaign reporting and finance ordinances and regulations need to define with absolute clarity that strictly prohibit the coordination of expenditures and campaign activities with measured finance committees and individual candidate’s campaigns in municipal elections.
12. A mandatory schedule of fines and penalties for violations of the code of ethics and campaign practices act should be enacted by the City Council.
Every effort should be made to make Albuquerque’s public financing laws for municipal elections to legally provide for a “dollar for dollar” match to privately raised funds by candidates and measured finance committees on their behalf, thereby providing a real level playing field.
The influence of big money in elections allowed by the US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United is destroying our democracy. Many highly qualified candidates for office all too often do not bother to run because of the inability or difficulty raising the necessary money to run.
Political campaign fundraising and big money influence are warping our election process. Money spent becomes equated with the final vote. Money drives the message, affects voter turnout and ultimately the outcome of an election.
Albuquerque municipal elections need campaign finance reform and enforcement, something the City Council has been reluctant to do for 4 years. Perhaps after the November 5, 2019 City Council election we will have 4 new City Councilors willing to tackle the issue head on and do what is in the best interest of voters and not themselves.
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