The upcoming November 5, 2019 election will be the first consolidated elections for the City of Albuquerque. The ballot is very lengthy and will include 4 City Council races, $127 million in city general obligation (GO) improvement bonds, continuation of a city road tax, the Albuquerque Public School Board election, a ballot measure for a continuation of a tax levy for APS school maintenance, and the CNM governing board. The ballot will also include two City Propositions: Proposition 1 deals with updating the city’s public finance ordinance. Proposition 2 sets up a city funded voucher system to use city general funds to give out $25 vouchers to voters who in turn will give the vouchere to candidates they support. This blog article is an examination and analysis of both city propositions.
PROPOSITION ONE: PUBLIC FINANCE UPDATE
This ballot question is worded as follows:
“Shall the City of Albuquerque adopt the following amendments to update the language of the Open and Ethical Elections Code, which provides for public financing of City candidates: clarify the use of in-kind contributions, increase how much seed money a candidate can collect, provide definitions for “election cycle” and “candidate,” require candidates to follow public financing contribution limits for one year before asking for public funds, increase funds for publicly financed mayoral candidates and set a minimum distribution for council candidates in districts with fewer than 40,000 registered voters, enforce City Clerk’s administrative rules, and allow the City Council to amend the Open and Ethical Elections Code by ordinance with a vote of a majority plus two of the entire membership of the Council?”
A yes vote is a vote in favor of making changes to the city’s public financing program for candidates, including:
Increasing the amount of seed money that a candidate can get from one person from $100 to $250;
Increasing the amount of seed money that a candidate can give himself or herself from $500 to $2,500;
Increasing the public funds for participating mayoral candidates from $1.00 to $1.75 per registered city voter; and
Increasing the public funds for participating mayoral candidates in run-off elections from $0.33 to $0.60 per registered city voter.
A no vote is a vote against this measure, thereby keeping the existing public financing laws.
Proposition 1 clarifies and tightens up the definitions around what constitutes an in-kind donation. In the 2017 mayoral election, many irregularities occurred with “in kind” donations that resulted in ethics complaints against Mayor candidate Tim Keller where cash donations were called “in kind” donations. It was Keller’s longtime political consultant Alan Packman that argued that “cash donations” to the 2017 Keller campaign were “in kind donations”, something the Ethics Board rejected outright and admonished the Keller Campaign with no penalty. After the election, Keller hired Packman to work for the city at the 311-call center and Packman is paid upwards of $85,000 a year and reports directly to Keller.
The biggest change to the public finance law under Proposition 1 is to dramatically increase the amount of city general fund and taxpayer money will be given to mayoral candidates. The current public finance system in place today requires candidates to collect $5 qualifying donation from register voters after which qualified mayoral candidates are given $1 per registered city voter. In the 2017 Mayors race, the amount of public finance was $380,000. Under Proposition 1, the amount would increase from $1.00 to $1.75 per voter, which will be $665,000 in public finance.
TIM KELLER’S $1.35 MILLION 2017 CAMPAIGN FOR MAYOR
In 2017, there were originally 16 candidates for Mayor, with only 8 candidates who secured the number of qualifying nominating signatures to be placed on the ballot. Under the election code ordinance, all candidates for Mayor were given three months to collect nominating petition signatures from registered voters, and only six (6) weeks to secure the 3,000 required number of $5.00 qualifying donations for public finance.
Tim Keller was the only candidate in 2017 election that qualified for public finance. The Keller campaign collected over 3,000 qualifying cash donations of $5 to the City of Albuquerque from registered voters over a six-week period. Once qualified, the Keller for Mayor campaign was given a total of $506,254 in public financing, which included the first election and then the runoff. As a condition to receiving public financing from the City, Tim Keller agreed to a spending cap not to exceed the amount given and agree not to raise and spend any more cash to finance his campaign.
Notwithstanding being a public finance candidate, Keller supporters realized that more would be needed to elect Keller and formed three (3) measured finance committees that either raised money directly to spend on his behalf or indirectly spent money and supported Keller’s candidacy for Mayor financially.
ABQ Forward Together was a measured finance committee that was formed specifically to raise money to promote Tim Keller for Mayor. The measured finance committee raised over $663,000 for Keller. ABQ Forward Together was chaired by a former campaign consultant for Mr. Keller when he ran successfully for New Mexico State Senate. $67,000 was raised and spent by the Firefighters political action committee known as ABQFIREPAC for Keller. $122,000 was raised and spent by ABQ Working Families on Keller’s behalf.
$1,358,254 was spent on Tim Keller’s successful campaign for Mayor. ($506,254 public finance money + $663,000 ABQ Forward + $67,000 ABQFIREPAC + $122,000 ABQ Working Families = $1,358,254.)
OTHER 2017 CANDIDATES FOR MAYOR
There was no other candidate for Mayor in 2017 that had measured finance committees that raised and spent money on their behalf. Republican City Councilor Dan Lewis, who made it into the runoff with Tim Keller, raised more than $847,000 combined in cash contributions for the October election and the November Mayoral runoff election. Democrat Brian Colón raised and spent nearly $824,000 for his unsuccessful mayoral run. Republican Wayne Johnson privately raised and spent approximately $250,000. Republican Ricardo Chavez finance his own campaign by contributing and loaning his campaign $1 million dollars, but when he dropped out of the race, all of the money was repaid to him after he spent approximately $200,000. The remaining three (3) candidates for Mayor raised and spent less than $50,000 combined after failing to qualify for public financing.
Proposition 1 is the result of a task force formed to review and make recommendation to the City’s Public Finance Law. The task force failed to recommend real updates to the city’s public finance laws. Democratic Albuquerque City Councilors Pat Davis and Diane Gibson served on the 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 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. She has been a disaster as a City Councilor. (For recommendations for changes to the City’s public finance and election laws that are in order see the below postscript to this article and related blog articles).
Proposition 1 does not overhaul Albuquerque’s public finance laws in any meaningful way. It does not make it easier for candidates to qualify for public finance. The only major change is that it increases the amount of money candidates get in public finance and not the process of collecting the donations to qualify and not expanding the time to collect qualifying donations. The lack of changes to the public finance laws favors incumbents. It is not at all clear how increasing the amount of money given to qualifying candidates for mayor actually benefit voters or make elections fairer.
Absent in Proposition 1 are any changes to the rules and regulations governing measured finance committees. Measured finance committees are still allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money and spend it to promote their chosen candidate. In the 2017 Mayoral election, Tim Keller was the only publicly financed candidate and was given $506,254 in public finance by the city to run his campaign. Notwithstanding being a public finance candidate, $1,358,254 was actually spent on Tim Keller’s successful campaign for Mayor which included $506,254 public finance money and another $852,000 raised and spent from three measured finance committees raised to get Keller elected Mayor.
For recommendations for changes to the City’s public finance and election laws that are in order see the below postscript to this article and this related blog articles:
PROPOSITION 2: DEMOCRACY DOLLARS
The ballot question is as follows:
Shall the City of Albuquerque adopt the following amendments to update the language of the Open and Ethical Elections Code, which provides for public financing of City candidates: provide eligible city residents with Democracy Dollars, to contribute to their choice of qualified candidates, which the candidates could redeem with the City Clerk, up to a limit, for funds to spend in support of their campaigns, as directed by the City Council, and increase the funds for publicly financed mayoral candidates?
A yes vote is a vote in favor of creating a program called Democracy Dollars that would provide eligible city residents with $25 vouchers that they can give to a participating candidate.
A no vote is a vote against creating a program called Democracy Dollars.
The Democracy Dollars is a voucher program modeled after the Seattle, Washington voucher program that offers Seattle residents to participate in local government by supporting campaigns or supporting those running for office themselves. In Seattle, all registered voters and eligible Seattle residents who apply receive four $25 Democracy Vouchers by mail. You can read more on the Seattle program at this link:
Albuquerque’s “Democracy Dollars” proposition is the result of a 2018 successful petition drive to put it on the ballot for a vote. Signatures from registered city voters were secured to get the measure on the ballot. In August 2018, proponents of the measure attempted to have the Bernalillo County Commission place Democracy Dollars on the November 6, 2018 general election ballot. It was totally discretionary and the responsibility of the Bernalillo County Commission to put the measure on the November 6, 2018. However, the County Commission voted not to place it on the November 6, 2018 ballot thereby requiring the city to place the measure on the November 5, 2019 municipal election ballot. For more see:
Approval of Proposition 2 would set up Democracy Dollars, a program to provide eligible Albuquerque residents with a $25 taxpayer-funded coupon to give to an eligible candidate of their choosing in a city election. The funds would be added to those provided by the city’s current public finance system should a candidate qualify.
Proponents of Dollars for Democracy argue that it will encourage more people to register to vote and more varied and diverse candidates will run for office who normally do not run or who cannot raise the necessary funding for a campaign. Proponents also argue Democracy Dollars will have the benefit of candidates directly contacting and discuss issues that affect them. Democracy Dollars does not require recipients be registered voters, just city residents.
NEW MEXICO “ANTI DONATION CLAUSE”
The New Mexico Constitution strictly prohibits donations to individuals by governmental entities. The provision provides in pertinent part:
“Neither the state nor any county, school district or municipality, except as otherwise provided in this constitution, shall directly or indirectly lend or pledge its credit or make any donation to or in aid of any person, association or public or private corporation … .” (N.M. Const. art. IX, § 14.)
Advocates for “Democracy for Dollars” cite the success of such programs in other states and municipalities such as Seattle, Washington. This is a bogus argument in that it does not take into account New Mexico’s anti-donation clause.
NEW MEXICO’S ANTI DONATION CLAUSE
It is highly likely that in the event that the “Dollars for Democracy” passes, it will be challenged in court as a violation of the New Mexico Anti Donation clause in the New Mexico constitution. The language of art. IX, Section 14, is very clear when it states “neither the state nor any county, … or municipality … shall directly or indirectly … make any donation to or in aid of any person, association or public or private corporation ” The “Democracy Dollars” $25 vouchers are clearly a donation and aide to people given to them to give to another. This is the very type of activity the anti-donation clause was designed to prohibit. Yet if Democracy for Dollars is enacted, the city will have to defend the program in court.
WARPED VIEW OF DEMOCRACY
The “Democracy Dollars” system is touted a “voucher” system to allow the city to donate $25-dollar redeemable vouchers to all “qualified” city residents who are less fortunate to make money donations on their own. The argument is that the less financially fortunate will be able to participate and make a political campaign donation to candidates of their choosing like those who can afford to make donations on their own. This is a somewhat warped interpretation of democracy. It equates political donations as the only meaningful way to participate in the election political process. Those who cannot afford to make political donations can and usually do get very involved with campaigns and volunteer time and “sweat equity” to campaigns on a grass root level. The hallmark of city elections is “door to door” campaigns to ask for a vote and support, not just money.
“Democracy for Dollars” is a pathetic attempt to supplement the $5.00 qualifying donations to secure public finance from the city. The voucher system will be funded by financing from the general fund, so there is nothing free about it. To say that Democracy Dollars will encourage more people to register and vote is a real stretch of the political imagination.
FINANCIAL HIT TO CITY TAXPAYERS
The issuance of $25 vouchers to all city residents of the city or for that matter, just registered voters will result in a financial liability far above and beyond what is already in the city budget for publicly financed candidates. It is not that difficult to calculate the minimum fiscal impact of Democracy Dollars would have on the City’s General Fund by looking at the 2017 Mayoral election.
In 2017, there were where 8 candidates on the ballot before there was a run off. Combined, all 8 candidates received 52,491 total votes. Assuming that each of the 8 candidates were able to secure $25 in Democracy Dollars from those who voted for them, the taxpayer cost to the city to finance their candidacies would have been $1,312,275. The only candidate to qualify for public finance in 2017 was Tim Keller. When you add $506,254 in public finance Keller was given, the amount of out of pocket public financing distributed would have been $1,818,529. The average cost to the city to run the election is also $1.3 million. Therefore, the total cost of the 2017 election would have been $3,118,529.
With Democracy Dollars, all qualified residents, not just registered voters, would be given the vouchers. There is no clarification as to the age requirement of a resident to qualify for the $25 voucher. The estimated 2017 population of Albuquerque is 558,000. With no age qualification, the cost of the “Dollars for Democracy” would be approximately $13,950,000 (558,000 X $25 = $13, 950.)
POTENTIAL FOR ABUSE
To be blunt, in the political world, the $25 Democracy Dollars voucher system sets up a public finance system that can be very easily abused and undermined by any nefarious candidate or measured finance committees to solicit the vouchers. An example would be a candidate could decide to go around and just buy the voucher’s outright from residents at a lesser cost of say $5 to $10 and then turn the purchased voucher into the city to collect the full $25.
When you examine both Proposition One, Public Finance Update, and Proposition 2, Democracy Dollars, both can be considered a very noble and idealist attempt, feeble as it is, to campaign finance reform in one form or another to deal with Citizens United, the Unite States Supreme Court ruling that allows unlimited amount of campaign fund raising and spending. The reality is both propositions represent nothing more than a “money grab” by candidates for office. The amount of general fund money that will be required for both propositions would be better spent on essential services such as social service programs desperately needed or even public safety.
The single biggest threat to the fairness of Albuquerque’s municipal elections is the influence of the measured finance committees that can raise unlimited amounts of money with little or no regulation. Propositions 1 and 2 do not even attempt to deal with measured finance committees.
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, not a money grab by those running for office which is what Propositions 1 and 2 represent.
Albuquerque municipal elections need campaign finance reform and enforcement, something the City Council and the Mayor’s Office have been reluctant to do for 6 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.
On November 5, VOTE NO on Propositions 1 and 2.
Proposition One public finance update and Proposition 2 “Democracy Dollars” represent a failure at real reform the City’s public finance laws. Public finance laws should not be set up to make it too difficult to qualify for public financing.
Following are recommendations for changes to the City’s public finance and election laws that are in order:
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 October 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.