It didn’t make any local media reports. But last Friday, a deal was struck in the state legislature that could fundamentally change how elections are held in Seattle.
The deal concerned two identical bills with different numbers that had been overwhelmingly passed by the Senate (29-20) and the House (56-38). Because the bills had different numbers, one had to be passed by the other chamber, by this week, in order to be forwarded to the governor’s desk for her signature. And the Senate version, championed by the venerable Sen. Rosa Franklin, won out. (It’s amazing how much of Olympia’s legislative process comes down to personalities. It’s like middle school on steroids.) Gov. Gregoire is expected to sign it into law.
Oh, the bill? It would allow local jurisdictions (cities or counties) to hold referenda on public financing of elections. And Seattle is at or near the top of the list of Washington cities likely to put such a measure on the ballot in November 2008.
Seattle already had public financing of elections once, in the late ’70s and 1980s, before Linda Smith’s statewide initiative (I-134) killed all such laws in 1991. More recently, eight of the nine Seattle City Council members – the folks who’d have to decide to put any such measure on the ballot – wrote Olympia in support of the bill about to be passed. (The sole exception was new city council member Bruce Harrell, recently elected thanks to his wealthy lawyer and developer friends and to opponent Venus Velazquez’s poor driving judgment.)
The path, then, to a November 2008 Seattle ballot measure is fairly clear: a bill already approved by a supermajority in the House, a governor likely to sign it into law, a city council overwhelmingly supportive. And local activists are already working on what that public financing model might look like. Most likely is some variation of the “Voter-Owned Elections” law passed in Portland, Oregon, in 2005. In the Portland law, any candidate who raises 1,000 $5 donations can then qualify for $150,000 in city money, provided he or she agrees not to take further private contributions.
A hundred fifty thousand dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it’s actually below the average of what serious candidates are spending to get on Seattle’s city council these days. In last November’s election, only two of five races were seriously contested (Harrell’s open seat and Tim Burgess’s unseating of incumbent David Della); both winners had the backing (and money) of much of the local business community. In the other three races, incumbents had raised over $100,000 before anyone else even declared for the seats; they raised double that by the time of the election, despite not being seriously contested. (Jean Godden and Sally Clark breezed to victory over underfunded opponents; Tom Rasmussen, the top fundraiser by the filing deadline, wasn’t even opposed.)
With public financing, that scenario wouldn’t be as likely in 2009. Recruiting candidates would be far easier if candidates with a minimum threshold of support were both guaranteed enough money to run competitive campaigns and didn’t have to spend the majority of every day on the phone begging people for money. If they won, they then needn’t worry about repaying those “debts,” either; the thinly disguised bribery that passes for the current campaign financing system (and that gives a huge built-in advantage to incumbents) would be over. And it can’t come any too soon, with several open seats likely in the city council in 2009 – plus Mayor Greg “Moneybags” Nickels running for reelection. (In 2005, Nickels’ war chest successfully kept any credible candidates from opposing him; a less-than-credible one with virtually no money, Al Runte, still did surprisingly well, suggesting that Nickels bought himself a second term even though voters weren’t sold on him.)
The upshot of all this is that last Friday’s deal ensuring Olympia’s passage of a measure allowing local public financing could fundamentally reshape our elections – and that almost certainly that decision will be in the hands of voters, perhaps as soon as November. Less likely, but also possible, is a King County measure – I-134 also struck down a public financing law in King County. Just think of how differently the Port of Seattle might be run if commissioners, earning a few thousand dollars a year, weren’t getting far more than that in contributions primarily from businesses that have dealings with the Port.
Ultimately, public financing of elections doesn’t just mean better elections; it also means a less corrupt government. And that’s well worth the relatively small amount of public funds needed to make it happen.