Public Campaign Finance: Right Idea, Wrong Time

Home » Public Campaign Finance: Right Idea, Wrong Time

CoinsThere has been news coverage recently about how as City Council President I won’t introduce legislation that would send a measure to establish public financing of political campaigns back again to the voters in November.* The Stranger has a story about this in this week’s edition.

Public financing of campaigns is a good idea. Seattle established a system for partial public financing of campaigns in 1978. I helped oversee the later years of that program as a commissioner on the City’s Ethics and Elections Commission. In 1992 a statewide initiative put an end to this practice, but in 2008 the State Legislature allowed local jurisdictions to establish programs through a public vote.

Last year I voted to let Seattle decide if they wanted public campaign financing. The proposed system would have incentivized candidates to reach out to a wider segment of the population by providing matching public funds to small campaign donations; a property tax provided the funds. The voters said “no” by a narrow margin.

This November’s election ballot will have many candidates, issues, and multiple tax measures (including a resurrection of a tax for the monorail!). There’s always risk, however slight, that voters will experience “tax fatigue” and overreact by voting no on measures they might have otherwise supported, such as universal preschool or public transit funding.

At a time when frustration with government is running so high, I want the City to show voters that local government is focused on what’s most important. Maintaining and improving transit service and expanding high-quality preschool for our children top my list of priorities.

*In case you’re wondering, the Council President decides what legislation will be put before the Council and when, but this power is by no means absolute. Any councilmember can make a motion to introduce legislation during a Full Council meeting; councilmembers who favor placing a public finance tax measure on this November’s ballot have not done so. If a majority of the Council wanted to hold further discussions on public campaign finance legislation, that motion would succeed and the legislation would be introduced and referred to committee.