Portland plans public financing for city campaigns

Portland plans public financing for city campaigns
© Getty

Candidates running for city offices in Portland, Ore., will be eligible to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in public campaign financing under a plan passed Wednesday.

City commissioners approved a measure that would provide candidates with matching funds on private donations, but only if they agree to cap their overall campaign spending. The law will allow commission candidates to raise and spend up to $550,000, while candidates for mayor could raise and spend $950,000.

The scheme, supporters say, would limit the amount of money in Portland politics while leveling the playing field and ensuring that only candidates with broad bases of support would qualify. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Candidates who agree to limit their spending and cap contributions from individuals at $250 would be eligible to receive a $300 match for the first $50 of every private contribution.

That means a $50 gift would net a campaign $350, counting the $300 in public matching funds, while a $250 max-out contribution would equal $550 after the public money is factored in.

Only commission candidates who raise at least $2,500 from 250 individuals, and mayoral candidates who receive a total of $5,000 from 50 individuals, would qualify for the matching funds. The plan is modeled on a similar program run in New York City, according to its lead sponsor, Commissioner Amanda Fritz.

Opponents of public financing schemes say those programs unfairly require taxpayers to fund campaigns with which they don’t agree.

“There is no such thing as public financing, there is only taxpayer financing,” said Dan Backer, a Republican campaign finance lawyer based in Virginia who opposes such measures. “Only a truly voluntary system of supporting speech you want to support, like campaign contributions, or even all speech through a voluntary system of adding money to your tax bill is ‘public financing.’ ” 

Portland experimented with public financing a decade ago, when campaigns that qualified were given a lump sum of $350,000 for commission races and $450,000 for mayoral races. Voters nixed that program by a narrow margin in 2010.

With campaign finance reform virtually dead on Capitol Hill, cities and states have passed measures to reform the way money is raised and spent in politics. In November, voters in Berkeley, Calif., and Howard County, Md., passed plans to publicly finance local campaigns. 

Similar measures are likely to be debated in Las Cruces, N.M., and in cities around California, after the legislature overturned a law banning public financing programs. 

“We have seen voters, Republican, Democrats and independents, concerned about the influence of big-money politics,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, which backs public financing. “We’ve seen efforts to move small-donor public financing at the state level and local level in places across the country.”

Voters in South Dakota narrowly passed a measure recently to create a publicly funded voucher program, too.