Campaign finance is not just a Bexar County or Texas problem — although the outrageously expensive gubernatorial race ($70 million with 10 days to go) is an embarrassing reflection of the Lone Star state's excess. Congress is laboriously pushing through incremental campaign finance reforms to rein in special interests that fund federal races. But more serious reformers are looking past these Congressional gestures, and calling for more seismic change: publicly financed — also known as Clean Money — campaigns. According to local activists, San Antonio and its decades of political corruption are ready for an overhaul.
"It can be done in San Antonio," said Fred Lewis of the Austin-based Campaigns for People. "But people have to stay vigilant; too many people are invested in the status quo. It really isn't about campaign finance reform. It's about people power versus money power."
How clean money works
The goals of Clean Money campaigns are to increase the number of candidates (there are 30 uncontested races on the Bexar County ballot November election), allow them to concentrate on voters and issues instead of fund-raising, give candidates who don't receive special interest money a chance to run a solid campaign, and reduce the influence of special interests.
Maine, Arizona, and Vermont have enacted statewide campaign finance laws. New York City, Tucson, and Los Angeles also use partially publicly financed campaigns. Although there are differences among systems, the nuts and bolts of Clean Money work like this:
The program is voluntary, and candidates who don't choose to participate can raise money as usual, in accordance with state law. But candidates who agree not to raise private money and to abide by spending limits, sign a Declaration of Intent. To prevent fringe candidates, those running for office then collect $5 from a number of qualifying contributors from voters in their district. (The requirement is based on population and number of registered voters.) For example, Maine, which has a much smaller population than Texas, requires 150 valid signatures for a state senate race, 50 for the house, and 2,500 for the governor's contest. The City or County Clerk checks the signatures (in light of the questionable invalidated signatures during the PGA referendum, this could be a scary proposition in Bexar County) to verify the information.
Before a candidate is certified as Clean Money, he or she can accept limited amounts of private seed money to help with the qualification process; for example, Maine's seed money limit for state legislators is $2,500. However, candidates can't accept money from PACs or corporations, and individuals are capped in the amount they can contribute, usually $100.
When the Clean Money fund kicks in, it gives the candidates a limited and equal grant of public funds for their campaigns. Candidates can qualify for additional matching funds if faced with a high-spending privately financed candidate. Those matching funds are capped at double the original grant in Maine, and triple in Arizona.
For example, Clean Money house candidates in Maine spent about $4,000 on their elections; in the senate, it was about $15,000. Non-participating candidates spent slightly more.
The money is generated in different ways, depending on state law and local preference. The $5 qualifying fees go into a pot, and in Maine, the state allocates $2 million in tax revenue from the general fund; in Arizona, the fund is generated from fees on lobbyists and from a 10 percent surcharge on civil and criminal fines.
An oversight board, such as the state ethics commission, monitors the candidates.
After several decades and dozens of bills that had been killed in the state legislature, in 1996 Maine citizens voted by referendum — 56 percent to 44 percent — to implement Clean Money rules. It went into effect in 2000, and in its first year, 31 percent of all candidates ran as Clean Money candidates. "More candidates ran," said Doug Clopp, democracy project coordinator for the Maine Citizenship Leadership Fund. "A couple of Republicans, both first-time candidates, won. We saw a lot of Democrats taking advantage of it."
This year, more than half of Maine's state representative candidates ran clean, and 62 percent of the senate did the same. Clopp estimates that after the November election, 60 percent of the house and 85 percent of the senate will have won by running Clean Money campaigns. The governor's race is using Clean Money for the first time, but only the Green Party candidate opted for a publicly financed campaign; he qualified for $1 million against his privately financed opponents. "He's the only one talking about the issues," Clopp noted. More women ran for office in states with Clean Money options: Maine saw a seven percent increase in the number of women candidates, and Arizona had 20 percent more.
It costs Maine taxpayers about $1.43 a year to finance the campaigns, but with a state budget shortfall, which has resulted in a cut from the general revenue, this year taxpayers will pay $3. "That's a Happy Meal," Clopp said. "You get a more diverse base, competitive races. You put Maine politics on the front porch rather than just a few influential people deciding who will win."
In the past two years Clean Money has been used, the Maine Citizenship Leadership Fund — one of the organizations that spearheaded the effort — has had to close a few loopholes in the law. If a Clean Money candidate is the target of negative ads from his or her opponent, he or she qualifies for matching funds. However, when political action committees or other special interest groups place the ad, the law doesn't allow for the extra money to kick in. "People are getting more sophisticated at skirting the disclosure laws," Clopp explained. "We're seeing PACs spend money on what we call 'sham issue ads.' They are very negative, but they avoid the four magic words — 'Vote for' or 'vote against.' They don't have to disclose the expenditures for these ads, so there is no matching fund trigger. We want these groups to put their names on it so we can track it and eventually reform the law."
Maine's success, but Austin's failure
Of all the places in Texas where observers thought the system could succeed, it was Austin. Yet in May of this year, Austin put a Clean Money referendum to a public vote — and it failed.
A confluence of factors worked against the proposition, said Fred Lewis of Campaigns for People, who worked on the referendum. If anything, Austinites have become complacent. There is already a $100 limit on individual contributions for City Council candidates, although that cap is now considered too low. Unlike San Antonio, Lewis noted, "Austin hasn't had examples of corruption in some time. We tried to remind people that we've had corruption before, but it was very hard to get people to remember."
Activists started working on the referendum in 1999, during the days of dot-com milk and honey, and collected 27,000 signatures to put it on the ballot this year. "There was a lot of money and the progressive community was cohesive," Lewis recalled. Three years later, the progressive community has splintered; many didn't even vote in May. The dot-com bust resulted in Austin's budget crisis — at $55 million, it overshadows San Antonio's $44 million shortfall; Austin's financial insolvency frightened voters away from allotting money toward campaigns. The plan was to raise funds through the voluntary utility and lobbyist fees, but there was a chance that to finance public campaigns, officials would have to dip into the general fund to pay the estimated $660,000 it would take to fund the plan.
The City Council hammered the last coffin nails in the proposal, determining the ballot language and inflating the estimated campaign cost to $4 million. "Those assumptions were absolutely ludricious," said Lewis, who researched other cities' proposals for his estimate. "There was a lot of hostility from Council. They delayed putting it on the ballot `it could have been voted on in November 2001` so they could chomp on us."
San Antonio's ripeness
Austin's failure to pass the referendum deflated some San Antonio activists, who were looking to their neighbors to set the tone for Texas. Now it looks as if San Antonio could break the precedent. Since May, the local political scandals — the PGA, huge injections of development money into Council's veins, and the recent bribery allegations — have reinvigorated the hope that voters here are ready to work on Clean Money referendum.
Earlier this year, Kat Swift, Keith Lyons, and other local Clean Money activists held meetings to explore the idea of publicly financed campaigns for city offices. The PGA controversy temporarily delayed the Clean Money effort, but the golf proposal also galvanized thousands of people to sign petitions demanding a voice on the project, while raising awareness about how San Antonio's Council is bought and paid for — and who is doing the buying.
Mayor Ed Garza has appointed a commission on integrity, although another level of bureaucracy is raising suspicions that it will make City Council's opaque methods of doing business even less transparent: After all, this is the Council who drinks from the bottomless cup of special interest money, and in the case of the PGA, finds innovative ways to circumvent the will of the people. More hopeful is the comment by City Councilman Julían Castro, who made overtures that campaign finance was due at City Hall. He told the Express-News that individual limits should be $2,000 for each City Council candidate, and $5,000 for mayoral candidates, with higher thresholds for PACs. While local Clean Money advocates say these numbers are high, they agree with Castro's suggestion that contractors and lobbyists with interests in specific contracts should be prohibited from donating money for a specific time before and after the vote.
The San Antonio system would be based on other successful ventures, such as Maine: signature and monetary requirements to prevent fringe candidates; matching fund limits; and an ethics board to monitor the campaigns.
According to state law, Clean Money advocates would have to legally draft a city charter amendment, and then would have six months to collect about 25,000 signatures; that number is lower than that required for the PGA petition because it isn't trying to overturn an ordinance or decision. After the City Clerk verifies the signatures, the referendum can then appear on the ballot. The sticking points include funding the Clean campaigns and tweaking the referendum's language; City Council — the very group affected by the measure — must craft the wording of the referendum.
As for funding, cities and states have found innovative ways to finance the Clean races. Arizona uses a surcharge on civil and criminal filings, other cities use lobbyists' fees — all of which go into the general fund, and then out again to the Clean campaigns.
At a local Clean Money meeting last spring, it was mentioned that one cent-per-day/per household on residents' CPS bill could fund the project (about $3.65 a year per household), although honing the details was put on hold while activists worked on the PGA.
Clean Money advocate Kat Swift said that CPS gives 14 percent of its revenue to the City in lieu of taxes — that amount has continued to increase since CPS became a public utility. One-tenth of one percent of CPS revenues is about $1.2 million — enough for local Clean money campaigns. "We want to stay away from tax dollars," Swift said. "And there is the question if `the local` electricity market is deregulated what would happen."
If the kinks can be worked out, Swift said that a referendum could appear on the 2005 ballot.
San Antonio doesn't generate the wealth of Austin, but the Alamo City does have something the state capital doesn't: a lot of angry, dissatisfied voters. "No matter what issues you bring up it relates to money in politics," said Swift. "Whether it's the aquifer or a paved street. Campaign finance reform is the key to everything."
"You have to have people who are focused and a public mad enough that when the crap starts flowing, they say, 'I'm sorry I've had it with the status quo; nothing could be worse than this,'" Lewis advised. "San Antonio has decades of corruption; it's palpable."