In the people’s pocket

The city council approves public financing of elections, but the state budget may derail reform efforts

It was more than a decade ago that voters loudly told the Sacramento City Council to do something about the corrupting influence of money in local elections.

In 1990, citizens passed a non-binding advisory measure instructing the council to implement a new law allowing public financing of local elections.

The measure, which was approved by 63 percent of voters, was intended to counter the weight of campaign contributions from developers, labor unions and other special-interest groups and provide a better shot at office for average citizens without high-powered connections.

But for 13 years, the council failed to implement any sort of public-financing measure—until last month, when the council tentatively approved the new law. Now, as backers of the reform are tantalizingly close to getting their wish, the state budget crisis may snatch it away at the last moment.

Public financing of elections is being adopted by an increasing number of local governments across the country. If Sacramento goes through with the ordinance, it will be one of only five cities in California with a public-financing law.

The movement for public financing is a response to the increasing cost of elections, even at the local level, and the reluctance of courts to uphold strict spending limits on political campaigns. Because current public-financing measures rely on candidates to sign a voluntary agreement not to exceed spending caps, backers say they are on firmer constitutional ground than earlier reform efforts.

To qualify for public funds, a candidate first has to raise $5,000 to prove he or she is a serious and viable candidate. (See chart for comparisons to other local governments that have adopted public-financing measures.)

Once the threshold is reached, the city will match every dollar raised by the candidate with public funds, up to $250 per contribution. So, whether a donor gives you $250, $500 or $2,500, the city will only match up to $250.

The candidate must agree not to raise more than $75,000 total during the election campaign. If, however, your opponent decides not to use public money and raises more than $75,000, you can raise more and keep the public funds.

Under the ordinance as proposed, no candidate could receive more than $30,000 in public money. The council has proposed spending $300,000 to fund four council races in the next election, enough for 10 candidates to receive the maximum. If more candidates got into the race and qualified, the maximum amount of money available to each candidate would be reduced.

The ordinance is structured to encourage more small donations and lessen the temptation to rely on a few special interests—like developers and labor unions—with deep pockets, said Jim Knox, director of California Common Cause, a campaign-reform group that is advocating public financing in the state and around the nation.

“I think it’s going to reinvigorate grassroots politics. I think you are going to see more candidates running. You’re going to see those candidates going after smaller contributions and spending more time knocking on doors instead of sitting in their offices and dialing for dollars.”

Reform advocates, fearing that they would lose the support of Mayor Heather Fargo, dropped the requirement that the mayor be subject to the public-financing provisions. As it turns out, Knox said, public financing has been more effective in council races than in mayor’s races in cities that have adopted such ordinances.

Common Cause and other groups have been working for five years to get the ordinance passed, an ordeal that has been frustrating at times, said Knox, but understandable given that it may work against incumbents.

“Enacting public financing can be very scary for incumbents. I think it is fundamentally difficult for elected bodies to reform the system that put them in office.”

Still, it may not have been all that difficult for councilmembers to cast a vote in support of public financing.

That’s because the council left the door open to allow for killing the ordinance if the state-budget crisis has a severe negative impact on city finances. Early estimates are that Sacramento stands to lose about $7 million to state budget cuts, and that could be enough to convince two or three councilmembers to switch their votes come fall.

But backers say the $300,000, out of a $300 million city budget, is well worth the investment.

“I call it the one-stoplight version of public financing,” said Robert Waste, professor of public policy at California State University, Sacramento, and chairman of the commission appointed by the council to study campaign reforms. Waste noted that the city can spend almost as much as $300,000 installing a single traffic signal.

The amount also equals three cops on the street for a year, or 60 curb ramps for wheelchair access on city sidewalks—all basic and essential services that cities have to provide even in bad times. “And what’s more basic than free and fair elections?” said Waste.

The price tag for the public-financing ordinance is also in the ballpark of $260,000 in taxpayer money that the council has spent studying the feasibility of a new downtown arena for the Sacramento Kings

Jimmie Yee, one of three councilmembers who voted against the ordinance (along with Sandy Sheedy and Robbie Waters) dismissed the notion that raising money was difficult for quality candidates. Yee has served on the council for 10 years and hasn’t had an opponent for his seat since 1992, when he was first elected.

“If you are popular enough, there won’t be any problem raising money.”

Yee also said that the campaign-contribution limits for council races, $750 from individuals and $3,000 from political action committees per calendar year, already has taken the influence of big donors away. “I think we’ve addressed this issue enough already,” said Yee.

The meeting on public financing was not well-publicized and caught some of the most ardent opponents of public financing of elections off-guard.

Joe Sullivan, president of the Sacramento County Taxpayers League, said he was “blindsided” by the move. He promised to fight the ordinance when it comes back to council this fall. His reasons for opposing public financing are simple: “I don’t think public money should be used to elect officials. Let them raise their own money.”

He doubts that public financing will keep so-called special-interest money from flowing in, “and then we’re going to throw taxpayer money in besides.”

But Knox argues that public financing provides an alternative to special-interest money and that that’s better for government.

“Ultimately, it’s a question of whether you want your elected officials beholden to the taxpayers or beholden to big donors.”