June 25, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 26

News

O’Brien, Burgess at odds over whether voters should decide on public campaign financing this fall

By Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

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A proposal to allow some candidates for city council to use public funds for their campaigns has stalled and may not even reach Seattle City Council for consideration.

Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Nick Licata have reintroduced a proposal to create a new, six-year property tax that would be available to grassroots candidates for office. If the council approves the proposal, voters will decide whether to accept public financing in the November election.

Typically, councilmembers propose bills and the council president refers them to a city council committee for discussion. The council president, however, can refuse to refer the bill.

That’s exactly what Council President Tim Burgess plans to do.

Now, to get the public financing proposal referred to the council, O’Brien is approaching each of his eight colleagues to gauge their support for the bill and ask if they will vote for an amendment. He said this is highly unusual and obscures what should be a public conversation.

“It requires I get a majority vote before we have any public discussion,” he said. “Which means all of those conversations have to happen behind closed doors, and I don’t believe that’s how we should do legislation in the city.”

Burgess argued that the city council regularly has these kinds of discussions behind closed doors.

“That kind of nose-counting happens at the city council all the time,” he said.

Burgess said he supports public financing but does not want to crowd November’s ballot, when voters will consider multiple proposals: Burgess is backing a property tax to pay for universal preschool, the city council is considering a funding package to save Seattle buses and there are multiple state initiatives.

“I just place a much higher priority on making sure the transit funding and preschool funding is passed by the voters,” Burgess said.

The campaign finance proposal revises one that voters rejected in 2013; it failed by less than half a percentage point. In the same election, voters revised the city council structure, creating seven district seats and two at-large seats.

The current campaign finance proposal sets different eligibility and spending requirements for the district and at-large council seats.

Candidates for district seats would need to raise 100 to 200 individual donations of at least $10 each and could spend no more than $140,000 on the primary and general elections combined. People running for at-large seats would need to raise 600 individual donations of at least $10 and could spend no more than $245,000.

All participants in the program would receive funding by a six-to-one ratio, meaning for every $1 the candidate raises, they will receive $6 from a public fund. The match is limited to the first $50 of each donation.

Proponents of campaign finance say voters should consider it soon. They narrowly rejected the proposal before and there is now even more support for it. It would take little effort to convince the small number of voters needed to pass the proposal, said Estevan Munoz-Howard, chair of Fair Elections Seattle.

“As people know more about public financing, they’re more likely to support it,” he said.

November is also the last election to establish public financing before the new district election system takes effect, he added.

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