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Charter Revision Commission Says “Yes” To Public Campaign Financing

The Hartford Charter Revision Commission voted 6-1 to recommend a charter revision that includes public campaign financing at its meeting on February 20, 2013.

While I do not have the precise language at my fingertips, it reads something simple, like “By July 1, 2014, the City of Hartford, through legislative action, shall institute public campaign financing programs for elections of mayor, court of common council and the city treasurer.”

The Charter Revision Commission voted to do this after my testimony last Wednesday night (which I published as my column last week). Chairman Ken Green was the only vote against it.

As I understood Green’s argument, he didn’t think public campaign financing mattered in a city where all you needed to do to win a city council seat is to play the Town Committee game. If you sweet talk enough town committee members, Green said, you get to be one of the six running for city council. There is no money involved in that. Green, I believe, voted in favor of campaign finance reform when he was a member of the General Assembly.

To me, public campaign financing is a way to reduce the town committee’s impact, and to give more candidates an opportunity to compete. The Democratic Party will continue to hold a majority of the seats. But 15 years ago, no one could have predicted the ascendancy of the Working Families Party.

In another two decades, there may be a clean money political party that has risen to power. Who knows? If, as I said in a column two weeks ago (quoting a Seton Hall Law professor), the rules dictate the outcome, the Charter Revision Commission has just changed the rules.

Obviously, I would like to think that my testimony had some impact. But unaffiliated Commissioners Brendan Mahoney (who invited me to testify) and Bruce Rubenstein argued in favor of it. The sole Republican commissioner Doreth Flowers liked it, as did all the other Democrats in attendance: Sharon Patterson-Stallings, Jeremy Baver and Thea Montanez.

Now, from what I understand, the Charter Revision Commission sends its package of all suggested revisions to the Court of Common Council for approval.

If the Court of Common Council approves the changes, then they go to the voters for the November 2013 election, which, this year, is only Board of Education members.

The wags engaging in political prognostication and vote counting on City Council will theorize that the three Working Families Party members will vote in favor of it. Finding support among the Democratic majority shouldn’t be too difficult, but I never will count chickens before they hatch.

If Charter Revision passes, the City will have get approval from the State Elections Enforcement Commission and some help from the state legislature, given the language of the enabling law that allows the city to create such a public campaign financing system.

The biggest questions people will have regarding public campaign financing is how to pay for it, especially in times of austerity (however fake it is, and however tilted towards the rich our policymaking is).

Using the City of New Haven’s Democracy Fund, its public campaign financing system as an example, a well-organized mayoral candidate there may be able to obtain about $50,000 for an election.

It is worth noting that the Democracy Fund is six years old, and was seeded with $400,000.00. As of now, there is still $270,000 remaining from that original seed money, depleted by administration expenses and candidate grants.

However, it is likely that with two good mayoral candidates this year, that the Democracy Fund could give out more than $100,000.00 in grants alone this year. What happens in New Haven’s mayoral election this year will give us good parameters for costs.

But let’s estimate that we need to budget $200,000 in public funds for mayoral election in 2015. That’s roughly $50,000.00 per candidate four candidates (two primary, two general, or some combination thereof).

The City should not spend more than $10,000 per candidate per Court of Common Council race. Suppose that we have 18 candidates (9 seats time two candidates per seat – in primary and general), that would mean $180,000 per election. To be on the safe side, let’s make it an even $200,000.

Finally, Hartford shouldn’t spend more than $20,000 per City Treasurer candidate, or $40,000. That’s $440,000.00.

The New Haven Democracy Fund budget $25,000 annually for its part-time administrator, which only has to oversee one office – mayoral. To be fair to an incoming administrator, Hartford should look to make the public campaign finance administrator closer to a full-time position of about $75,000 annually.

If the program is to begin on July 1, 2014 in time for the 2015 elections, the City needs to come up with $600,000 or so to make it work. That is not a lot of money in terms of a $400 million budget.

Many cities have created dedicated revenue streams. Hartford needs state approval to implement certain new taxing schemes. My proposal would be to add a 50 cent surcharge on every ticket sold at the Hartford Civic Center (which I will not refer to by its corporate name).

Hartford would need the legislature’s approval to do this, but I think that the General Assembly and the Governor would acquiesce.

This may place an additional unfair burden on the unpaid labor force that is the UConn men’s and women’s college basketball teams. To be fair, we could add the surcharge onto all other events (not UConn) at the Civic Center and Convention Center: concert, monster truck rallies, hockey games, home and garden shows, flower shows and so on.

Say there are 80 events annually drawing an average of 10,000 people per event.  That’s 800,000 tickets, times 50 cents, that’s $400,000. Annually, the fund would grow quite large, quite quickly. Or perhaps the surcharge becomes 25 cents, and Hartford starts its public campaign finance fund with a $200,000 seed grant.

The point is that money is out there. The City could also find other dedicated revenue streams, like new parking fees or something. We could also look to philanthropists to help get the fund off the ground.

The exact mechanisms of how Hartford’s Fund will distribute campaign finance dollars would be a question left to the legislature. Commissioner Rubenstein suggested he liked New York City’s model of 6-to-1 matching funds as opposed to New Haven’s hybrid model, or the outright grants.

Matching funds, in my eyes, really increase the value of the small dollar donor. The other great thing about public campaign financing is that it forces a candidate to choose political paths.

If a candidate for mayor chooses not to enter into public campaign financing, a savvy opponent could use it as a cudgel against the non-participating candidate. In that way, the exertion of political pressure can reduce the cost of elections, and re-focus campaigns on issues and making government work for the people.

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