Saying they want to reduce the influence of big donors on local politics, the Seattle City Council on Monday approved sending to voters in November a property-tax levy to publicly fund council campaigns.
In adopting the measure 8-0, council members said they hoped the proposal would attract more candidates to run for City Council and engage more people in the election process. The measure would provide a match of $6 in public funds for every $1 raised privately, up to a total of $210,000 in public funds.
“This will not get money out of politics,” Councilmember Nick Licata said before Monday’s vote. But he said the proposal’s requirement to get $10 donations or more from a minimum of 600 people would engage more of the public in campaigns and lead to discussion of a broader array of issues.
If approved, the six-year, $9 million levy would cost an estimated $2 million per year to fund council races. Once a fund was established, the council could set lower rates in subsequent years. The levy would cost the owner of a $400,000 home about $6.60 per year.
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But there already are many skeptics of publicly financed campaigns, including a group that supports electing a majority of council members by district. Seattle Districts Now turned in about 47,000 signatures earlier this month to place a measure on the ballot to elect seven council members by geographic district and two at-large.
That measure also promises to reduce the influence of money on politics by reducing the number of voters a City Council candidate has to reach to gain exposure, get out their ideas and get elected. Each district would have about 88,000 residents.
The Seattle city clerk is expected to announce soon whether there are enough valid voter signatures to qualify the proposed charter amendment for the November ballot.
That raises the possibility that two ostensibly good-government measures will be before voters. Supporters of district elections accuse the council of rushing to pass the public-finance measure so it can compete with — and perhaps detract from — the measure to elect council members by district.
“There’s concern in the district-elections camp that a public-financing measure on the same ballot could undercut voter support or confuse voters. Voters turned off by the idea of having to pay extra taxes for public financing may just vote no on both,” said John Fox, an advocate for low-income housing and one of the Seattle Districts Now campaign coordinators
Some strong opinions are lining up for each measure. Two office holders who benefited from previous Seattle public-financing programs say they were able to run competitively and spend more time on issues because they didn’t have to devote all their energy to raising money.
Former Mayor Norm Rice, who won both a City Council race and the mayor’s race with public financing, said that “everybody’s dollars really counted, not just rich ones.”
Licata, whose first race for council in 1979 was publicly financed, said the system meant people richer in community ties than in money could compete.
“It really made it possible to run a legitimate campaign,” said Licata, who noted he finished “a close third” in that first race.
But skeptics of public financing say that incumbents still win most of the time under public-financing programs. They also typically have long lists of donors and can secure enough donations to qualify for the public match with relative ease.
”It’s not surprising that incumbents would come up with a system that would benefit themselves,” said Jordan Royer, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association and a council candidate in 2009.
Royer noted that he was one of eight people who ran for the open seat ultimately won by Mike O’Brien. Under a public-financing system, he said, all eight could have qualified for up to $245,000 in matching funds.
“That’s a huge injection of taxpayer money into the system.” Royer said he will support the district-elections proposal because grass-roots candidates can win by doorbelling and reaching people in their district.
“If you’ve got that kind of community support, it doesn’t matter how much money the other guy raises.”
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @lthompsontimes