Pro­posal for pub­lic fi­nanc­ing of Den­ver elec­tions is deeply flawed

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Vin­cent Car­roll

Money talks in pol­i­tics, but not al­ways as loudly as some crit­ics claim. In Den­ver’s mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion two years ago, for ex­am­ple, the can­di­dates who raised the most money in se­ri­ously con­tested races ac­tu­ally lost more of­ten than they won.

Even a huge fund-raising ad­van­tage is no guarantee of suc­cess. In the city au­di­tor’s race, Ti­mothy O’brien pre­vailed de­spite raising roughly one-fourth as much money as his ri­val. In the District 1 City Coun­cil con­test, Rafael Espinoza col­lected about one-third as much as the in­cum­bent but still de­feated her.

Keep this con­text in mind as we ex­am­ine the Democ­racy for the Peo­ple ini­tia­tive for which sup­port­ers are gath­er­ing sig­na­tures to put on this fall’s city bal­lot and which would in­tro­duce ma­jor pub­lic fund­ing to Den­ver’s po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. Ac­cord­ing to Jonathan Big­ger­staff of Cleans­, or­ga­niz­ers are well on their way to reach­ing the re­quired mid-au­gust sig­na­ture thresh­old.

Den­ver vot­ers should be deeply skep­ti­cal. The city may ap­pear to be awash in rev­enue these days, but are its res­i­dents re­ally ea­ger to fun­nel nearly $8 mil­lion of tax rev­enue into po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns ev­ery four-year elec­tion cy­cle in order to “curb cor­rup­tion and its ap­pear­ance” — in the words of the ini­tia­tive — “and to pro­tect the in­tegrity of the elec­toral process”?

Those are mighty strong words, per­haps cho­sen to jus­tify di­vert­ing rev­enue from pop­u­lar pro­grams, as will in­evitably oc­cur. As it hap­pens, out­right cor­rup­tion in Den­ver is rel­a­tively rare. Nor is the ini­tia­tive likely to suc­ceed at the far less lurid goal of level­ing the po­lit­i­cal play­ing field in any mean­ing­ful way.

Fi­nally, the mea­sure is poorly drafted on crit­i­cal is­sues and could suck cam­paigns into a quick­sand of com­pli­ance dif­fi­cul­ties.

If noth­ing else, how­ever, the bal­lot mea­sure is am­bi­tious, lay­ing out a com­pre­hen­sive set of cam­paign fi­nance rules. Among the most im­por­tant:

• It sharply re­duces the lim­its on con­tri­bu­tions (from $3,000 to $1,000 for mayor, for ex­am­ple, and from $1,000 to $400 for City Coun­cil dis­tricts).

• It man­dates a host of re­port­ing re­quire­ments for in­de­pen­dent ex­pen­di­tures.

• Most no­tably, it cre­ates a pub­lic fund­ing op­tion for can­di­dates who agree to even lower donor lim­its ($500 for mayor, $200 for coun­cil dis­tricts) and to par­tic­i­pate in three de­bates, and who forgo con­tri­bu­tions from po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tees. Can­di­dates for most of­fices could tap into a Fair Elec­tions Fund (capped at $8 mil­lion) once they had at least 100 con­tri­bu­tions from Den­ver res­i­dents. May­oral can­di­dates would need 250 donors. At that point, the first $50 of ev­ery con­tri­bu­tion would be matched “by 900 per­cent.”

In other words, a $50 dona­tion would be­come $500!

Big­ger­staff ar­gues this is ne­c­es­sary “to re­duce the in­flu­ence of spe­cial in­ter­est money in pol­i­tics. When pol­i­tics is pred­i­cated on money as it is today at ev­ery level of pol­i­tics,” he says, “it per­pet­u­ates the cy­cle of po­lit­i­cal in­equal­ity.”

He be­lieves Den­ver is es­pe­cially ripe for re­form be­cause of its re­cent growth, cit­ing gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. “De­vel­op­ers have money and tend to do­nate a lot of money to elec­tion cam­paigns,” he ex­plains. “Peo­ple on the other side of the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is­sue don’t have as much money. They rightly feel their voices don’t carry as much weight. We want to make sure ev­ery­one’s voice is heard.”

Big­ger­staff is prob­a­bly right that peo­ple of mod­est means would be more likely to give money to cam­paigns know­ing that up to $50 would be matched nine­fold with pub­lic money. That seems to have oc­curred in New York City, for ex­am­ple, which pro­vides a 6-to-1 match for con­tri­bu­tions up to $175. The lib­eral Bren­nan Cen­ter and

the Cam­paign Fi­nance In­sti­tute say they doc­u­mented “a dra­matic in­crease in the num­ber and diversity of the city’s res­i­dents” who gave to cam­paigns af­ter the match­ing funds be­came law.

But even if that were true, would it be likely to change the dy­namic of who tends to run for of­fice and who is elected in Den­ver? It’s doubt­ful, es­pe­cially given the suc­cess that mi­nor­ity can­di­dates al­ready rou­tinely en­joy.

In­deed, the pro­posed law could eas­ily give in­cum­bents an even greater leg up, since they can raise money for their next cam­paign dur­ing their en­tire time in of­fice. Those who choose the pub­lic fund­ing op­tion will likely reach the 100-donor thresh­old long be­fore any chal­lenger jumps into the race. And un­less chal­lengers are fund-raising dervishes who start early enough, they could have trou­ble reach­ing the qual­i­fy­ing thresh­old in time for the money to do much good.

This should not be sur­pris­ing. The record of pub­lic fund­ing for cam­paigns, The Wash­ing­ton Post con­cluded in 2014, is that they do “not se­ri­ously dis­rupt the tra­di­tional ad­van­tages en­joyed by in­cum­bents. While races tend to be more com­pet­i­tive, of­fice­hold­ers still win re­elec­tion as much as ever.”

An­other ma­jor li­a­bil­ity for new­bie cam­paigns: ver­i­fy­ing that donors are Den­ver res­i­dents. John Ben­nett, who spent years as chief of staff for the Den­ver City Coun­cil, pointed out to me re­cently that even well-heeled cam­paigns don’t al­ways suc­ceed in com­ply­ing with today’s much sim­pler rules. Al­though no one is sup­posed to give more than $3,000 dur­ing an elec­tion cy­cle to a may­oral can­di­date, Ben­nett dis­cov­ered nine peo­ple gave more than the le­gal limit to Mayor Michael Han­cock. They weren’t no­ticed, he says, “be­cause their con­tri­bu­tions were made in dribs and drabs rather than one big check.”

Ben­nett wor­ries that com­pli­ance com­plex­ity will mush­room un­der the pro­posed amend­ment not only be­cause con­trib­u­tors must be Den­ver res­i­dents to count to­ward pub­lic fund­ing but also be­cause the pro­posal bars can­di­dates from ac­cept­ing do­na­tions from peo­ple who have ma­jor city con­tracts or have sub­mit­ted a bid for con­tracts — in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns have no way of ac­cess­ing.

For that mat­ter, pub­lic fund­ing could re­sult in a huge boost in over­all cam­paign spend­ing, ac­cord­ing to Ben­nett’s cal­cu­la­tions. He cites as an ex­am­ple Coun­cil District 7, where nine can­di­dates in 2015 raised a to­tal of $394,402. “If the pub­lic fi­nance pro­gram had ex­isted and if all nine en­tered it,” he re­ports, “they would have raised nearly dou­ble that, $756,301. Is more cam­paign spend­ing re­ally what we want?”

The Democ­racy for the Peo­ple ini­tia­tive also ap­pears to thumb its nose at court rul­ings on the First Amend­ment. In­cred­i­bly, it would im­pose bur­den­some re­port­ing rules on any per­son or group that spends as lit­tle as $200 on be­half of a can­di­date or bal­lot mea­sure — ex­actly the thresh­old that fed­eral judges on two sep­a­rate oc­ca­sions de­clared was far too low re­gard­ing Colorado law. In­deed, the leg­is­la­ture just last year re­laxed some rules for is­sue com­mit­tees of less than $5,000.

Given Den­ver’s in­creas­ingly pro­gres­sive po­lit­i­cal cul­ture, a pub­lic-fund­ing ini­tia­tive for cam­paigns may strike a pop­u­lar chord. But be­fore vot­ers de­cide to sup­port it, they should at least ask them­selves what prob­lem they will be fix­ing that is worth, say, tak­ing money away from fill­ing pot­holes and main­tain­ing re­cre­ation cen­ters.

Vin­cent Car­roll is a for­mer Den­ver Post and Rocky Moun­tain News ed­i­to­rial page ed­i­tor.

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