As government officials and activists across the United States struggle with how to combat dark money and increase voter turnout, the City of Las Cruces appears poised to implement a public-financing system for municipal elections beginning in 2017.
The proposed system, which would be voluntary, aims to level the playing field and reduce the influence of money on city elections.
NMPolitics.net has taken a hard look in recent months at whether public financing accomplishes those goals. The bottom line: Some studies in other states have found positive benefits of public financing, but two New Mexico cities with relatively new public-financing systems have not.
And with dark money’s influence growing, it’s not clear that public financing combats the impact political action committees and other third-party groups have on elections.
Here are some FAQs to help you better understand the issue.
Q: What are the details of the Las Cruces proposal?
A: Under the public-financing proposal from Common Cause New Mexico, the City of Las Cruces would place $2 per resident into a public-financing fund each year, which would create an annual budget of at least $667,000.
Those who choose to sign up and qualify for public financing would face limits on contribution sizes — $200 for mayoral candidates and $100 for council candidates. In exchange they would receive $4 in public funds for every $1 they raise through donations.
A mayoral candidate would need to collect 100 donations of between $5 and $100 from registered voters in the city — and at least $5,000 total — to qualify. Council candidates would need to collect 25 donations from registered voters in their district — and at least $1,000 total — to qualify.
Expenditures would also be capped.
Q: How do matching funds help?
A: The 4-1 match Common Cause is proposing would have helped level the playing field in the 2014 mayoral race in Santa Fe, but it wouldn’t have fully offset the effect of spending by independent groups.
All three mayoral candidates in Santa Fe received $60,000 in public funds that year. But independent groups spent another $64,000 to help elect the winning candidate, Javier Gonzales. A 4-1 match would have meant the candidates could have received and spent as much as $120,000 apiece instead of $60,000.
In other words, a 4-1 match would have meant Gonzales and supporting groups would have outspent the other candidates by a smaller ratio — 3-2 instead of 2-1.
A more level playing field? Yes. But not a totally level field.
Q: Does public financing work in other states?
A: Studies in other states show that public financing has allowed a more diverse group of candidates and increased voter turnout. In Connecticut, which implemented a public financing system for some statewide offices in 2008, public financing has not only allowed more people to run for office but helped a more diverse set of candidates get elected, according to a study by the public-policy organization Dēmos.
The report also indicated that lobbyist influence began to decline after the implementation of public financing, concluding, “Connecticut’s experience shows that public financing is a fundamental part of a stronger democracy that is more responsive to constituents, rather than big donor and special interests.”
Meanwhile, a 2008 study from Stanford University on public-financing programs in Maine and Arizona found that “programs in both states significantly increased competition in districts where challengers accepted public funding.”
Q: Does public financing work in other cities in New Mexico?
A: Albuquerque implemented a public-financing system in 2009. Santa Fe did it in 2012. A September NMPolitics.net review of data from those cities suggests it’s too soon to know whether they’re experiencing trends like those found in other states.
What’s clear is that the systems in those cities need improvement. The majority of city councilors in Santa Fe rejected a matching-fund proposal earlier this year that was designed to improve that city’s public financing system, with some of them complaining that public financing can’t keep up with PAC spending.
Santa Fe’s public financing system 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 in arguing that a matching-funds provision be added to Santa Fe’s public financing law.
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 pushing to add constitutionally allowable matching-funds provisions to the public-financing laws in Albuquerque and Santa Fe in addition to building matching funds into the system it’s proposing in Las Cruces.
Q: What do policymakers in Las Cruces say?
A: With outside spending on elections in Las Cruces increasing, the majority of members of the Las Cruces City Council appear poised to vote in favor of implementing a public financing system.
“I favor the public financing of elections, period,” Councilor Gill Sorg has told NMPolitics.net.
Mayor Ken Miyagishima has said he’s “always been a supporter of public financing” and asked that the proposal be voted on by the council in the near future.
Only Councilor Ceil Levatino has expressed much skepticism about the proposal. She questions the cost and the concept of taxpayers funding elections.
Q: When would Las Cruces see its first publicly financed election?
A: The system would likely go live in 2017, when City Council districts 3, 5, and 6 and a municipal judgeship are up for grabs. There’s not another mayoral race until 2019.