The attack on public finance

Pub date September 27, 2011

EDITORIAL The two most important political reforms in modern San Francisco history were the restoration of district elections and the creation of a public-finance system for mayoral and supervisorial elections. Both give candidates who lack big-business support a chance to win elective office. Both give independents a chance to compete against the downtown interests. Both have improved local government considerably in the past decade. And now public financing is directly under attack.

The Board of Supervisors was slated to meet in closed session Sept. 27 to discuss amendments to the public disclosure law — allegedly, according to Supervisors Mark Farrell and Sean Elsbernd, to avoid legal liability. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down in July that an Arizona law giving increased public money to candidates who were being badly outspent by well-financed opponents. One aspect of the city’s law, which allows extra public money for candidates once their opponents break the spending cap, might fall under the high court’s ruling.

But the city’s right in the middle of a heated mayoral election, and all of the candidates entered knowing the current rules — and more important, nobody has come forward to sue, or even threaten to sue, over the city’s law. So there’s no urgent reason to rewrite the ordinance.

The very fact that so many qualified candidates are in the race is an argument for public financing. Many of the current candidates would be unable to raise the vast sums required for a serious campaign without the help of public finance — and that opens up the field to more ideas, more debate, more policy discussions. It also gives the voters more of a choice — which, is, after all, what democracy is about.

Besides, as activist Larry Bush pointed out to us, “you have two choices with money in elections — you can pay up from with public funding or you can pay afterward with sweetheart contracts. And we all know which one is cheaper.”

Mayor Ed Lee, who has refused to take public money (because he doesn’t have to — he’s got plenty of rich and powerful backers) is attacking the campaign law, complaining in a TV ad that his opponents are “using taxpayer money” for “attack ads” — and that’s spurring discussion about whether there ought to be limits on how public money can be used. Any move in that direction would undermine the whole point of the law — if candidates can’t do negative ads (which, like it or not, are part of the modern campaign world) with public funds, they’ll raise outside money instead.

There are plenty of ways to improve the city’s public finance law (increasing disclosure requirements for late money and expanding the restrictions on donation by city contractors would be a good start). But amending the law in the middle of a campaign when there are no existing legal threats is a bad idea, and the supervisors should scrap it.

PS: If Lee wants to be mayor, he needs to start showing up — at debates and forums. That’s part of the job.