Draft Proposal for Campaign Finance Reform in the City of Santa Cruz
Prepared by Micah Posner on 5/20/2012. Do not copy
Goal: To allow the city to better serve its primary purpose as a democratic, public institution by:
- Insuring that the pool of City Council Candidates is not limited to those with fund raising experience and/or access to money.
- Significantly increasing the quality of the debate during elections by allowing candidates to focus more on issues and conversations with constituents and less on fundraising.
- Saving between $60,000 and $200,000 annually in money that would have been spent by the community in donations to campaign funds (depending on what would have been spent on those campaigns).
- Preventing the potential for corruption, or the perception thereof, in City Council elections.
Proposal: Amend and strengthen the city's Voluntary Campaign Expenditure Ordinance by the following:
1. Change voluntary limits on individual and organizational limits to mandatory. Retain the same amounts as per the current ordinance.
2. Provide a public 1 to 1 match for campaign contributions to candidates who agree to the Voluntary Expenditure Limit.
To insure that this policy did not artificially encourage large numbers of candidates and to reduce staff time needed to implement, the match would occur at $5000.00 increments up to the voluntary expenditure limit, which is currently $26,641.00. In other words, upon raising $5,000, a candidate would submit proof to the City Clerk who would authorize payment of $5000.00 to the candidate's treasurer for expenses. The process would repeat at the $15,000.00 and $23,320.50 levels of donations.
Cost: The cost to the city of this ordinance is estimated at no more than $50,000.00 annually, representing .00026% of the city's current budget of $192,627,172.00.
This relies on the assumption (historically accurate) that no more than double the candidates in city Council elections would raise at least $5,000.00. Under this maximum expense, using current numbers, the city would pay up to $13,320.50 per candidate for up to 14 candidates over any 4 year period. $13,320.50 multiplied by 14 equals $186,487.00, divided by 4 equals $46,621.75.00.
This cost would offset costs to the community of between $55,000 and $200.000 annually in contributions to the candidates, depending on what the candidates would have raised without the strengthened ordinance. $55,000.00 represents the cost savings if the ordinance had been enacted in the last election cycle, while $200,000.00 represents savings if each candidate would have spent $50,000.00.
Context: The City of Santa Cruz already has an ordinance that sets voluntary campaign expenditure limits for city council races- both per donor and per total expenditures. Both limits raise with population and cost of living increases. The per person limit is currently $325.00. Per organization is $780.00 and the total expenditure limit is $26,641.00. The ordinance was established in 2000. The goals of the ordinance are:
- To minimize the potentially corrupting influence and appearances of corruption caused by excessive contributions; an
- To limit overall expenditures in campaigns, thereby allowing candidates to spend less time fundraising and more time communicating with voters; and
- To provide incentives to encourage candidates to voluntarily limit their campaign expenditures.
However, there is very little incentive for candidates to agree to the voluntary limits. Agreeing to the limits allows a candidate to not pay $1,494.00 to be featured on the city's website and allows the candidate access to software that helps to fill out campaign disclosure forms. A more serious incentive- a free mailer for candidates who agreed to the ordinance was rescinded by a Council wherein a majority of the members were elected without agreeing to the limits.
Since the 1980s, a majority of winning Council Candidates did not spend much more than $20,000.00. After the ordinance was passed in 2000, however, candidates started to outspend the voluntary limit as early as 2004- Ryan Coonerty). In 2010, none of the winning candidates agreed to the limit and the frontrunner, Hilary Bryant, spent well over $40,000.00. In 2012, two out of four of the candidates did not agree to the limit, including newcomer Pamela Comstock, who spent close to $43,000.00. It seems clear that the ordinance is no longer succeeding at two out of three of its primary objectives. On the positive side, no candidate has exceeded the per person/ per organization limits set up by the ordinance (currently $320.00 and $750.00 respectively) thereby fulfilling the first goal of the ordinance. The fact that many candidates did not agree to the ordinance suggests that this is a reflection of a healthy culture among candidates and not of a successful ordinance.
The recent history of voluntary campaign contributions suggests:
- We do not yet have a problem of corrupt influence in city elections, though the ordinance is so weak that it would not prevent this from occurring.
- The ordinance has not proven to be a strong incentive to control maximum expenditures, and the most costly campaigns are getting more costly with each election cycle.
- It is still entirely possible to win a city election while agreeing to the voluntary expenditure limits as evidenced by the successful campaigns in 2014 for 4 seats on the Council of Don Lane (1 st out of 8) and Micah Posner (3 rd out of 8).