How Amanda Fritz Could Revive Public Campaign Financing in Portland

Here's how other cities did it.

You may be buying the next round of Portland City Council candidates.

If Commissioner Amanda Fritz gets her way, public financing of City Council campaigns could return, possibly as soon as this year, for elections in 2018.

Fritz says she hasn't decided whether to put the question to voters directly or the City Council. Either way, she will have to overcome skepticism to resurrect what was once known as "voter-owned elections."

"We're going to be looking very closely at the details of what she proposes," says Jim Blackwood, senior policy director for Commissioner Nick Fish.

Portland experimented with public financing of city campaigns for five years, beginning in 2005. The system was optional, meaning candidates could raise private funds.

Launched under then-Portland Commissioner Erik Sten, the public financing system gave City Council candidates who collected signatures and $5 contributions from 1,000 registered voters an additional $145,000 for the primary. Mayoral candidates could get $200,000 for the primary, and more for the general election.

The system was marred by scandal early on, when City Council candidate Emilie Boyles was caught having submitted fraudulent signatures to qualify via her campaign manager.

"I'm very popular in the Slavic community," Boyles told WW in 2006, explaining the preponderance of Slavic surnames on her nominating petitions. (She also used campaign funds to pay household bills and her teenage daughter. Boyles has repaid $145,000 of the $245,000, including penalties and interest, she owes.) The city spent about $2 million on public campaigns before 2010, when voters defeated the taxpayer-funded program.

Fritz, who used the program successfully in 2008, says she is undeterred by the 2010 vote and past abuses—public financing lost by just 1,600 out of 210,000 votes. She's vowing stepped-up enforcement, stiffer fines and criminal penalties for cheaters.

She says the fact that the spending measure failed amid a nationwide financial crisis gives her hope that voters could be persuaded to try it again.

"That wasn't a 'Not ever,'" Fritz says of the 2010 vote. "That was a 'No, not now,' in my opinion."

Fritz's proposal is still taking shape, with plans for public forums in the wings. As a result, she doesn't yet have an estimate of how much it would cost. Until then, she says she's holding off on figuring out how to pay for it, although she's ruled out tapping revenue from a pot tax aimed at the November ballot.

Fritz says Portland's model would draw inspiration from public financing systems in New York City or Montgomery County, Md., rather than Seattle, where last year Washington voters approved publicly funded "democracy vouchers" to give candidates.

Here's a look at the public financing programs other places developed or maintained while Portland took a break:


What it does: In 2015, Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved "democracy vouchers." Voters each get four $25 vouchers to send to city candidates of their choosing.

How they pay for it: Voters agreed to raise property taxes by $30 million over 10 years—or $9 per year for a $450,000 property, according to estimates in The Seattle Times.

Fritz's take: Seattle hasn't had time to show the system works. In any case, Fritz says she's not convinced. Public campaign financing is supposed to make it easier for lesser-known candidates to spread their message, she says. Seattle's system "still gives incumbents and better-known candidates a head start."

New York City

What it does: The Big Apple matches private donations by city residents with public money at a rate of 6 to 1, meaning every $100 in private fundraising gets a candidate $600 in taxpayer money. There's a cap of $175 on the amount of donation the city will match, providing up to $1,050 in public money per donor. There's also an overall cap on matching funds, depending on the race. And candidates agree to abide by spending limits. The program has been around since 1988, but the city gradually increased the matching rate up to 6 to 1 and also lowered the cap, to emphasize small donations.

How they pay for it: It comes out of the city's general fund. In the 2013 election, the city spent $38.2 million on campaigns—a tiny fraction of its $70 billion annual budget.

Fritz's take: New York City's program also comes with rules that qualifying candidates must follow, including frequent reporting of campaign contributions and audits to thwart fraud. Fritz says she likes those requirements, as well as the concept of matching funds. "We haven't settled on what the numbers would look like for Portland," she says.

Montgomery County, Md.

What it does: The program won approval in 2014, but won't be in place until the 2018 elections. Like the one in New York City, Montgomery County's system will offer matching funds, but it will follow a graduated approach. Smaller donations to candidates for county executive are matched at the highest rate of 6 to 1, meaning a $50 contribution would get a $300 match. The next $50 of a donation to that candidate would be matched at a 4-to-1 rate, and the final $50 of a donation—there's an overall cap of $150 on matched contributions—would get a 2-to-1 match. That means three $50 donations would net a candidate an additional $900, while one $150 donation would draw only $600. By accepting public campaign dollars, a candidate would have to agree to decline contributions from unions, corporations or political action committees.

How they pay for it: The county council appropriated money for the program in each of the past two budget cycles. It now has $6 million in the fund—out of a $5.3 billion annual budget.

Fritz's take: She sees value in matching smaller donations at higher rates. "This approach is more favored by community advocates," Fritz says, "as it provides more incentive for less affluent donors to contribute."

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