Common Cause’s proposed ordinance for public financing of local elections poses a sharp choice. Either automatically transfer $200,000 from the City General Fund to a “Fair Elections Fund” (FEF) available to all candidates or leave $200,000 available for social services. Ordinance advocates have not answered, or agreed upon answers to, four questions: what purposes it serves, what problems it solves, what standards measure success or failure, and whether the benefits outweigh the costs. Apparently, advocates believe that past elections have been “unfair” and future elections need tax dollars to be “fair.”
Whatever its other deficiencies, the ordinance has three major defects, each with undesirable consequences.
First, the FEF supports an unknown but larger number of candidates, presumably, the more, the merrier. Not likely. In a city population leaning left more than right, more candidates can be expected from the left than the right. Because political discipline in elections is weaker on the left than on the right, the left will likely have several candidates and divided supporters, and the right will likely have only one candidate and unified supporters. The probable result will be a majority of councilors on the right governing a majority of citizens on the left. From a democratic point of view, the ordinance would increase the risk of the election of a government lacking “the consent of the governed.”
Second, the FEF supports qualifying candidates—experienced politicians and first-time novices—equally. Yet experienced politicians, who have name recognition, numerous supporters, and generous contributors, have advantages which first-time novices do not. They are more likely, their rivals less likely, to raise enough money to receive the maximum funds permitted by the fund. So the FEF gives as least as much money to the “haves” as to the “have nots,” although the “haves” are likely to receive far more private money to support their campaigns. Nothing would be “fair” about equal FEF distributions.
To make the fund seem “fair,” the ordinance excludes present Council members from receiving FEF funds for their first campaign after ordinance approval. Thereafter, any continuing or former Council member, still possessing the advantages of public office, can qualify for public funding. Clearly, Council advocates intend this ordinance to help them in all but the first of their re-election campaigns after enactment. Otherwise, they could have refused qualification for FEF funds to any person who has served as a Council member. What advocates chose not to do reveals that they intend the ordinance to serve mainly their interests, not primarily those of potential competitors. The public does not benefit from experienced politicians getting taxpayer funds for their campaigns.
Third, the ordinance mandates an annual, “non-lapsing,” FEF contribution. Anti-democratically, Council advocates intend it to protect this money for themselves before the annual budget process begins and public participation in setting budget priorities commences. Self-servingly, Council advocates think that $400,000 is better spent on elections every two years than $200,000 for other purposes each year. Anyone believing that these funds might be better spent on hungry, homeless, or sick people; on victims of domestic abuse or rape; on senior centers or public parks; or other social services should know that Council advocates believe that their needs come first. Arrogantly, they presume to know better than future City Councils what will be in the best interests of Las Cruces citizens.
Whatever else may be said about the proposed ordinance, mandating the availability of taxpayer funds to experienced politicians for their re-election and denying those funds to other community purposes in advance of discussion neither serve the public interest nor support democratic government. The only fix is its defeat.