ABQ’s campaign finance system needs reform

COMMENTARY: Former Albuquerque City Councilor and N.M. state Sen. Eric Griego recently penned an editorial regarding the Albuquerque Open and Ethical elections system passed by voters overwhelming in 2005, by a vote of 69 percent to 31 percent.

The Open and Ethical Elections system is Albuquerque’s public finance system for candidates for mayor and city council.

Pete Dinelli

Courtesy photo

Pete Dinelli

According to Mr. Griego’s commentary, he makes the accusation that Democratic and Republican candidates who are privately financed and their “operatives” have been “attacking the only publicly financed candidate in the race” — and that “they may have signed the death knell for the system and any hopes of reducing the influence of big money in local elections.”

Former City Councilor Griego was the primary sponsor of the ballot measure, something that he can take immense pride in and that he needs to be commended for by city voters.

Griego’s letter and his words are akin to a father going to the defense of his child, and is in defense of his anointed candidate for mayor, Tim Keller.

Mr. Griego acknowledges, “there is no question that the system needs to be overhauled. Making it more accessible, accountable and viable … to reducing the oversized role of powerful interests such as big developers and city contractors in city elections.”

Noble words ignoring what really happened, coming from someone who contributed $500 to “ABQ FORWARD TOGETHER,” the measure finance committee formed exclusively to promote Keller and that has spent and raised over $222,000 on his behalf.

The problem is, there was in fact an opportunity to overhaul the public finance system but the City Council failed miserably to place it on this year’s municipal ballot for voter approval any substantive changes to the city’s public finance system.

Mr. Griego also conveniently ignores and does not mention that his chosen candidate Keller not only is getting the benefit of $360,000 of taxpayer public finance money but the benefit of a measured finance committee chaired by a former campaign manager, with the measured finance committee raising at least $200,000 to promote Mr. Keller.

Measure finance committees are just as powerful interest groups as developers and city contractors Griego complains about.

Tim Keller has the best of all political campaign finance worlds — first by getting public financing to the tune of $342,952 and being able to say he is “walking the walk” and running a “grassroots campaign” by qualifying for public financing, while at the same time receiving assistance from a measured finance committee that has raised at least $200,000 to promote him and that is chaired by a former political consultant who has worked on his past campaigns for the state Senate.

How public finance works

Publicly financed candidates are required to solicit $5 qualifying donations to the city. Those donations can only come from registered city voters.

Qualifying publicly financed candidates for mayor and City Council are given a single lump sum of money from the city they can use to run their initial campaign. If they make it into a runoff election, they are given a significantly reduced lump sum amount in public financing for the runoff election.

According to the Albuquerque City Charter, for the first election, qualifying public financed candidates for mayor are given $1 per registered voter in the city, or approximately $380,000 less in-kind donations and “seed money.” If the mayoral candidate makes it into the runoff, they are given an additional 33 cents per registered voter, or approximately $127,000 for the runoff.

All publicly financed campaigns and candidates are required to agree to the spending caps in writing and are prohibited from soliciting and asking for any other cash donations.

Publicly financed candidates are normally at a distinct disadvantage to privately financed candidates when it comes to what can be raised and spent, unless they have a measure finance committee set up to promote their candidacy.

City public finance candidates are given only eight weeks to collect 3,600 qualifying $5 donations from Albuquerque residents and registered voters. It’s a daunting and very difficult task.

Contrary to what Eric Griego says, more than just “a few candidates” tried to qualify for public finance this year.

This election year for mayor started with 12 original candidates attempting to qualify for the ballot, with eight declaring they would seek public finance and four declaring they would be privately financed candidates.

Only Tim Keller qualified for public finance in part because he had an enormous built-in advantage of being an incumbent statewide elected official who could afford to pay significant amounts to political consultants to get him on the ballot and qualify for public financing.

The city clerk has never set up a system to permit electronic transactions by donors, such as debit and credit cards, even though it was allowed by the ordinance.

The city clerk requires the campaigns attempting to qualify for public finance to collect cash and issue paper receipts. It is a system set up for failure, unless you have a dedicated workforce.

The $5 donations are made to the City of Albuquerque and not to the candidates’ campaigns.

The $5 donations must come from registered voters, otherwise the donations do not count.

In the event a campaign fails to collect the minimum number of qualifying donations, all money collected reverts and is kept by the city.

Only after a campaign accumulates the required number of $5 donations is a campaign given the public financing based on voter registration numbers of those eligible to vote and based the last municipal election.

Four years ago, there was federal court litigation relating to companies that do business with the city filed by donors who worked for the corporations that do business with the city that struck down the city’s campaign finance law.

Measure finance committees

Under the City of Albuquerque’s campaign finance laws, a measure finance committee is a political action committee (PAC), person or group that supports or opposes a candidate or ballot measure within the City of Albuquerque.

Tim Keller is the only candidate running for mayor this year who has such a committee set up to promote his candidacy for mayor. It has solicited and raised at least $200,000, according to campaign finance records filed with the city clerk.

Measure finance committees are not bound by the individual contribution limits and business bans like candidates.

Many voters cynical of politicians feel it is disingenuous for publicly financed candidates to secure taxpayer money first to run a campaign, and agree in writing to a spending cap, only to have political operatives create a measure finance committee to help them get elected and spend massive amounts of money in the first election and then the runoff.

The fact that measure finance committees are not bound by the individual contribution limits and business bans, like candidates are, is what makes them a major threat to warping and influencing our municipal elections and the outcome.

Any measure finance committee can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money and can produce negative ads to destroy any candidate’s reputation and candidacy.

Measure finance committees can do all the dirty work for a candidate, especially in any runoff when the public finance candidate has spent all the campaign money they had to get into the runoff.

Failed city charter task force on public finance system

A few years ago, a Charter Review Task Force was convened to review and propose changes to the city’s charter that would be submitted to voters for approval.

The Task Force was made up of 15 members who are all residents of the City of Albuquerque:

  • One member selected by each councilor
  • Five members appointed by the mayor
  • Chair of the task force selected by the Council

The task force was instructed to come up with major changes to the city charter, which includes the public finance system.

The task force failed to recommend meaningful changes to our public finance laws that would make it easier for candidates to qualify for public finance.

After many public hearings, the only change proposed by the task force to our public finance system was increasing the amount of money candidates get, and not the process.

The lack of any meaningful changes to the public finance laws favors incumbents in that they know the process and have the organizations to get it done by virtue of their incumbency and past experience in running public finance campaigns.

The attitude expressed by my own incumbent City Councilor Diane Gibson is, “it’s supposed to be hard to qualify.” She has said it keeps out people “who are not serious candidates,” as if she should be the one deciding who are serious candidates.

I cannot and will not be voting for Diane Gibson.

Suggested changes to public finance law

Following are recommendations for changes to the city’s public finance and election laws that I believe are in order:

1. Allow four months and two weeks, from Jan. 1 to May 15, to collect 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 financed candidates can collect donations from anyone they want, 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 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 to $2.50 per registered voter the amount of public financing, which will be approximately $900,000, and allow for incremental increases of 10 percent every election cycle to keep up with inflation.

8. Allow for additional matching public financing available for runoffs 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 measure 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.

Conclusion

Albuquerque’s public finance laws need major overhaul to be effective.

Every effort should be made to make Albuquerque’s public financing laws for municipal elections to legally provide for a “dollar for dollar” match to privately raised funds by candidates, thereby providing a real level playing field.

The influence of big money in elections allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United is destroying our democracy.

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, but I doubt we will ever get it in the age of Citizen’s United.

Pete Dinelli is a former Albuquerque city councilor and former chief public safety officer. He was the only publicly financed candidate for mayor four years ago. Agree with his opinion? Disagree? NMPolitics.net welcomes your views. Learn about submitting your own commentary here.

This BBSNews article was syndicated from NMPolitics.net, and written by Heath Haussamen, NMPolitics.net. Read the original article here.