Proponents of creating a voluntary public financing system for elections in Las Cruces say it could help candidates counter the effects of spending by political action committees.
But in Santa Fe, the majority of councilors last month rejected a matching-fund proposal designed to improve that city’s public financing system, with some of them saying public financing can’t keep up with PAC spending.
Councilor Bill Dimas was one of three candidates for Santa Fe mayor in 2014. All three qualified for public financing. Each received $60,000 in public funds.
Javier Gonzales won the race after independent groups spent an additional $64,000 supporting him.
“In the last mayoral election in 2014, all three candidates, in an effort to level the playing field, used public campaign financing,” The Santa Fe New Mexican quoted Dimas as saying. “But when top union officials, their attorneys and top political party officials formed PACs to support one candidate, that’s when the concept of a level playing field went to hell.”
Supporters of public financing admit that systems in Santa Fe and Albuquerque have problems, but they’re working to fix them. And they’re trying to create a system from scratch in Las Cruces that works better.
“We can’t stop PAC money,” said Heather Ferguson, who manages Common Cause New Mexico’s money-in-politics campaigns. But a well-designed public financing system can give candidates the tools to engage with voters in a way that keeps them competitive, she said.
One solution, Ferguson said, is implementing a matching-fund provision that incentivizes candidates raising more money from small donors. In all three cities, Common Cause is pitching a match of four public dollars for every $1 candidates raise through donations.
Such a match would have meant mayoral candidates in Santa Fe’s last election could have raised and spent as much as $120,000 instead of $60,000.
In theory, Gonzales could have raised that $120,000, just like the other two candidates, and still been backed by an additional $64,000 in spending by other groups.
In that scenario, Gonzales and supporting groups would have outspent the other candidates by a smaller radio — 3-2 instead of 2-1.
Dimas isn’t the only Santa Fe city councilor to express doubt that the matching funds would help.
“It’s unfortunate that none of this keeps dark money or [PAC] money out of our election,” The New Mexican quoted Councilor Signe Lindell as saying last month. “I think it’s really important for people to be well aware of that — that we don’t have a mechanism to make that happen and that we can spend and spend and spend from the city’s monies, and we can’t stop that from happening.”
Common Cause will keep trying. In addition to pushing the proposal in Las Cruces this year, it’s discussing elections proposals — including a matching-funds provision — with the Albuquerque City Council’s Finance Committee today.
Albuquerque, like Santa Fe, used to have a matching-funds provision in its public-financing law, but the U.S. Supreme Court found systems like those two cities’ unconstitutional in 2011. That because they provided additional public funds to candidates in direct response to spending by privately funded opponents.
Systems that tie public money to a candidate’s own fundraising, rather an opponent’s, remain legal.
Common Cause is also trying again in Santa Fe with a working group that includes city councilors. The process there could take several months, Ferguson said.
‘A failed attempt to do it on the cheap’
Santa Fe’s public financing system, even without a matching-funds provision, worked well in 2012, when PACs didn’t become heavily involved, Common Cause’s State Chair Jim Harrington wrote in a column published by the Albuquerque Journal in February.
But in 2014, the system “proved no match for the well-heeled professionals who entered the fray on the side of one of the three publicly financed candidates… forming PACs that outspent every candidate and swarmed the city with paid door-knockers and glossy negative mailers.”
The victory by the candidate backed by PACs represents “not a failure of public financing but rather a failed attempt to do it on the cheap,” Harrington wrote.
“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,” he wrote in urging Santa Fe to adopt a matching-funds provision in spite of the additional cost to taxpayers.
Ferguson said candidates are looking for a solution to keeping up with PAC money, and New Mexicans also want a system less influenced by such funds.
“We’re feeling a groundswell,” she said. “People are sick and tired and ready to see some changes.”