Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Public Financing System

As printed in the Chapel Hill News on Wednesday, July 25th:

Since 2003 I've worked heavily on the campaigns of six candidates for Chapel Hill Town Council and two for Orange County commissioner. Six of them raised enough money to do everything they wanted to in the campaign and two of them did not. Six of them won and two of them did not. You can probably guess what the correlation was.

That's why I'm so pleased that the legislature passed a bill last week that will allow Chapel Hill to do a pilot program for public financing in municipal elections.

The core requirement of the bill is that "the candidates participating in the program must demonstrate public support and voluntarily accept strict fundraising and spending limits in accordance with a set of requirements drawn by that government."

The success of the program in encouraging a wider variety of candidates to put themselves forward for public office will depend on how those parameters are met when the specific requirements of it are set.

In order to "demonstrate public support," I think candidates should raise a minimum of $2,500 from at least 50 individual contributors who are residents of Chapel Hill in order to qualify for public financing.

This may seem onerous, but since our tax dollars will be paying for the program we need to make sure that it is spent on serious candidates. For the most part, if someone cannot raise an average of $50 from 50 different people they don't have the level of support necessary to mount a viable campaign.

An additional step to ensure that the $2,500 is raised from moderate-size donations would be to establish a guideline that only the first $100 of the Chapel Hill maximum contribution of $200 would count toward the baseline for public financing. A similar system is used in the federal public financing system. Candidates using public money should also be restricted to donating $200 to their own campaigns. A minimum donation of $10 would be worth considering as well so folks don't load up on large checks and reach the required number of donors by picking up $1 donations.

Candidates that reach the qualifying threshold should receive a matching amount of $2,500 in public funding. In most cycles you can run a perfectly viable campaign for $5,000 in Chapel Hill. In the last election, newcomer Laurin Easthom finished first overall and spent less than $4,000.

Even though Easthom was able to do that, the 2005 election was somewhat unusual in that no single candidate spent a large amount of money. It's sort of like a Prisoner's Dilemma. When one candidate raises a ton, others tend to feel like they need to also. If no one does that, then a cheaper campaign is possible.

It is likely that sometime we will see another campaign like 2003, where several candidates infused a lot of their own money and spent more than $10,000 apiece. So we need to make sure the "strict fund-raising and spending limits" called for in the bill are not too low, to ensure that well-funded candidates who eschew public financing don't get too big of an unfair advantage.

I think a reasonable cap for participating in the public finance program would be $7,500. So candidates would have to raise at least $2,500, would then receive $2,500 in public funds, and could raise another $2,500 on top of that if they so chose.

I cannot see a scenario where a candidate who reached out to voters and had a compelling message would lose a race due to a lack of money by only spending $7,500. It would be because there were four stronger candidates in the field, not because of insufficient funds.

Ideally there could be a $5,000 maximum, but I don't think that does enough to protect against the possibility of some folks running very expensive campaigns. Based on my experience, $7,500 is a good middle ground.

There are also a couple things in the public-financing system for statewide judicial campaigns in North Carolina that Chapel Hill might consider. One is a provision for "rescue" money for publicly financed candidates if an opponent not using the system raises an inordinate amount of funds. This could entail either receiving a larger public allocation or increasing the cap on fundraising. A second thing in the judicial system worth implementing is a neutral voter guide mailed to all Chapel Hill voters so they can be informed about their choices.

I throw out this proposal mainly as a starting point for community discussion. I hope there will be a lot of public input because the rest of the state will be watching us to see how this works, and it would be great if we can develop a successful model that becomes broadly implemented after the five-year study period allowed in the bill has passed.

If we do this right, we will never have a serious local candidate lose due to a lack of money again.

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