Seattle Courant

City Council Discusses Bringing Back Taxpayer Funded Elections

By Celeste Gracey
April 2, 2009 04:04PM

"There isn't a quid pro quo," said Councilmember Nick Licata, but "you tend to see people who make contributions get better access to election officials."

Since 2003, the number of people donating to Seattle elections has dropped 35 percent, but the average donation went from $143 to $213, which means fewer people are giving more money to candidates, according to a report by the Campaign Public Financing Advisory Committee.

The committee endorsed a $3 million measure that would give lump sums of cash to City Council candidates that gather 1,000 signatures backed by $10 donations. Mayoral candidates would need 1,500 signatures.

The City Council supports such a program, but it comes at an awkward time for council members, who are trying to work out a $25 million budget shortfall. Which is why they’re setting the vote aside until the economy improves, perhaps taking up the issue as early as next year.

"It's pretty hard to tell people, 'Gosh, I'm going to cut homeless shelter beds so I can spend money on people getting public funds for running for office,'" said Councilmember Sally Clark said, who supports publicly financing elections.

City council members insist that voters need to be better educated on this issue before they attempt to put it on the ballot.

"I think people would just think: 'the budget is tight … this is something we can do without,'" said Licata, who won with a publicly-funded campaign in 1979.

To run a competitive race against an incumbent, City Council candidates need to raise about $250,000. The high cost often intimidates potential challengers, who perhaps aren’t as well-connected.

In 2005, Nickels raised about $534,000 for his reelection campaign, defeating opponent Al Runte who only raised about $19,000.

"I think you'd have more candidates challenging him, if they had more money," Licata said of Nickels.

And that's the goal, to allow people who don't have access to large sums of money to run successful election campaigns, Clark said.

"I think candidates would win the elections more based on what they believe," Licata said.

Incumbents benefit from the program as well, because they don't have to work as hard raising money.

"If I am running for office, during the heavy lifting time, I'm out of the office two mornings a week making phone calls," Clark said. "It benefits any elected official … in being able to focus more on the job you’re being paid to do."

All this talk about re-introducing publicly-funded campaigns in Seattle started after the state legislature made it legal in 2008 for local governments to finance campaigns. The state’s bill amended a 1992 initiative that made it illegal to use taxpayer money for such purposes.

The bill requires local governments put such programs on a ballot to be approved by voters.