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The Seattle City Council will take its first look Monday at a proposal to publicly finance City Council campaigns through a new property-tax levy. The goal is to increase grass-roots participation in local elections by reducing the financial barriers for candidates to enter a race and to strengthen the role of small contributors.

The trend over the past decade in Seattle elections is to fewer donors, who are writing bigger checks. From 2001 to 2011, the average contribution to council races nearly doubled, from $115 to $223, and the percentage of funds raised from contributions under $100 dropped to 6 percent.

“Our local democracy is strengthened when candidates can focus on the important issues facing our city, instead of who can raise the most money,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who is sponsoring the legislation along with Councilmembers Nick Licata and Jean Godden.

To pay for the public campaign-financing plan, the City Council will consider placing on the November ballot a property-tax levy that would raise about $1.5 million a year. The cost would be about $6 for the owner of a $400,000 home.

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Even though the council hasn’t introduced the measure — much less approved it — a campaign already has been organized to lobby for its passage. Fair Elections Seattle has raised about $18,600, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. It has the support of the King County Labor Council and most of the city’s Democratic legislative-district organizations.

Skeptics already are criticizing the proposal, saying public financing in other cities hasn’t lessened the power of incumbency or made races more competitive. And they question whether voters will want their tax dollars going to candidates whose views they may not support.

“About the most you can say for these programs is that they increase the number of people who can run and lose,” said William Maurer, executive director of the Institute for Justice’s Washington chapter and an attorney specializing in election law. “For such an investment of tax dollars, is that a good return?”

How it would work

Under the council’s draft proposal, a candidate would have to collect 600 contributions of at least $10 to qualify for public financing. Once qualified, donations of up to $50 would be matched at a ratio of $6 public money to every $1 of private money. Public money would be capped at $140,000 per candidate for the primary and an overall cap of $245,000 per candidate for both the primary and the general elections.

Any candidate could choose to self-finance and not receive any city matching funds.

If the levy is approved by voters, public financing would be available to council candidates beginning in 2015.

The proposal would not apply to mayoral races, where there is now no shortage of candidates. By contrast, in four current City Council races, only two incumbents have a mainstream challenger who has raised significant funds.

Seattle has had public-financing programs in the past, most recently from 1987 to 1991. A state initiative in 1992 prohibited public financing. In 2008, the Legislature agreed to allow local campaign-financing plans, if approved by a public vote and if the funding is derived from local sources only.

The City Council was poised in 2008 to restore public financing for all city elections at a cost of about $2.5 million a year, but the recession hit and the council shelved the idea.

One group that lobbied the state Legislature to restore the local option for public financing, Washington Public Campaigns, is supporting the Seattle measure. Alice Woldt, executive director, said the organization’s goal is to engage more voters in elections and to push big money out of politics.

“We hope to encourage more people to run who may be intimidated by having to raise a lot of money. We’re not talking about fringe candidates, but people who have good ideas and would make good decisions in office,” she said.

In January, the City Council asked the Ethics and Elections Commission to research other cities and recommend a public-financing plan that would increase electoral competitiveness, reduce financial barriers to running for office and increase the emphasis on small donors.

The Ethics and Elections Commission didn’t vote on its proposal; rather, it forwarded several options to the City Council. Still, one commissioner felt strongly enough that he sent a dissenting opinion to council members. Bruce Carter, a former assistant U.S. attorney and former Municipal League chairman, questioned using tax dollars when there are so many competing demands in the city budget, such as roads and police.

He also said it was a solution in search of a problem.

Seattle City Council staff members analyzed three cities with public-financing systems and compared them to Seattle over several election cycles. The cities with public financing attracted more candidates, but in Seattle incumbents were elected only 84 percent of the time compared with the other cities, where they were elected about 90 percent of the time.

Carter pointed to the incumbent Seattle City Council members thrown out of office after the Strippergate scandal as proof that incumbents aren’t automatically re-elected.

(Strippergate jolted Seattle city government when media reports in 2003 revealed a surge of more than $36,000 in suspicious contributions to then-City Councilmembers Judy Nicastro, Heidi Wills and Jim Compton. The contributions came from owners of a strip club seeking council approval to expand the club’s parking lot. The council approved the expansion, reversing two previous denials. The political fallout contributed to the ouster of Nicastro and Wills in the 2003 election. Compton was re-elected but left the council in 2006 to pursue other interests.)

“If a person shows weakness or takes unpopular positions, they attract opponents. That’s what we want,” Carter said. And he doesn’t think the average $223 contribution to council races is evidence of big money dominating local elections.

But Councilmember Godden said a public financing plan that required candidates to seek out 600 small contributors would broaden both the donor base and the number of people active in campaigns. And once a candidate qualifies for matching funds, she said, he or she can focus on the issues.

“Candidates can spend more time on the campaign trail meeting people and hearing what’s on their minds rather than spending all their time raising money. And if more people get involved in campaigns, that’s a definite plus,” she said.

Lynn Thompson: or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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