Extra resources for students of State and Local Government 180, an upper-division GE class in the Government Department at Sacramento State University
Saturday, December 10, 2011
San Francisco Chronicle: SF Campaign finance rules may face review
S.F. campaign-finance rules may get overhaul
John Wildermuth, Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco ChronicleDecember 10, 2011 04:00 AM
Copyright San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
David Butow / Special to The Chronicle
Supervisor John Avalos, who finished second in the mayor's race, walks with his wife, Karen Zapata, and children Rene and Emiliano. He says public financing was a boon to his campaign
A public campaign-financing plan that cost San Francisco more than $4.6 million and counting for this year's mayoral race may be changed to make it tougher for would-be candidates to quality for city cash.
The city's Ethics Commission on Monday will consider forcing candidates for office to raise more money from more donors before qualifying for public financing, which might not be available until later in the political year and could be far less generous when it comes to matching funds.
While the public-financing system, used in a mayor's race for the first time, went very smoothly, the city needs to address concerns that were raised during the campaign, said John St. Croix, the commission's executive director.
"Clearly, there need to be changes," agreed David Latterman, a consultant for Board of Supervisors President David Chiu's mayoral campaign. "A lot of public money was spent for not much effect."
Nine of the 11 top candidates for mayor accepted public financing, with Public Defender Jeff Adachi and appointed Mayor Ed Lee, the eventual winner, opting out. A report by the Ethics Commission found that five of those candidates, who received a combined $2.3 million in city money, each received less than 5 percent of the first-choice votes cast. Requests for additional city funds were dribbling in from campaigns right up to Friday's deadline.
"Right now, you just qualify for public financing and the money just keeps coming in," said Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who voted against the board's 2006 decision to extend public financing to the mayor's race.
Tightening the qualifications for the public money and delaying the payout could make candidates take a long, serious look at their chances for victory before entering the race, he added.
Currently, candidates can begin collecting public money as early as February of the election year. Someone running for mayor qualifies for public financing by collecting $25,000 from at least 250 separate contributors. That first $25,000 is matched with $50,000 in city money, with the next $100,000 raised qualifying for a 4-to-1 match, meaning $400,000 more from the city treasury. An additional $450,000 is matched dollar for dollar.
No candidate this year raised enough money to collect the maximum $900,000 public match, although Lee would have if he had accepted public funds. City Attorney Dennis Herrera led the way, taking in $720,690 in city money.
At Monday's meeting, the commission will be asked to consider changing the first date for receiving public money to mid-May or mid-June, instead of February. The delay, the commission's staff said in its report, "would address concerns that public funds are too easily accessible too soon, even before it's clear that the candidate is indeed a viable candidate."
The commission also could make it tougher for candidates to get public money. They will be asked to look at changing the current "$25,000 from 250 donors" gateway into one that requires $50,000 from 500 contributors or even $80,000 from 800 supporters before city money is paid out. Similar, though smaller, increases also could apply to campaigns for candidates running for the Board of Supervisors.
The commission's staff also is recommending that the top match for contributions be trimmed to 2-to-1. But while St. Croix has found plenty of folks arguing that the current 4-to-1 match is too high, not everyone agrees.
The large match encouraged many small donors, who normally would think their contributions wouldn't matter, to get involved, said Supervisor John Avalos, who finished second in last month's voting.
"This lets someone give $10 and see it turned into $50," he said. "For someone trying to maximize small contributions, as I was, it was huge."
Avalos received $450,639 in public campaign financing.
The commission also will look at ways to deal with the "zombie" candidates - entrants who realize they can't win, but don't drop out because they can't afford to repay the city's matching funds.
"We're looking at providing an escape hatch where candidates can drop out up to the time the ballots are printed," St. Croix said. "They could pay their bills and return the rest of their money to the city."
Approving any of the suggested changes, which won't happen until January at the earliest, will take some effort. Adjusting public financing rules requires a supermajority of four votes from the five-member commission and eight votes from the 11-member Board of Supervisors.
While even strong supporters of public financing see the need for some changes, they're convinced that the program is fulfilling its goal.
"I think this is an important way to achieve some equity in who gets to run for office," instead of limiting candidates to the rich or connected, Avalos said. "It broadens the ability of candidates to represent working communities."
The Ethics Commission meets at 5:30 p.m. Monday in Room 408 at City Hall, 1 Carleton B. Goodlett Place, San Francisco.