Berkeley considers public campaign financing for 2016

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Berkeley is considering allowing local politicians to use public funds to finance their campaigns, by way of a measure that aims to give small, individual contributions to candidates more weight.

At the Fair Campaign Practices Commission meeting Thursday, representatives reviewed a draft of the Berkeley Fair Elections Public Campaign Financing ballot measure, which was referred to them by Berkeley City Council. The measure, if passed by voters in 2016, will permit candidates for local office to use public city funding to help finance their campaigns, which will be distributed to match citizen contributions.

According to Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who sponsored the measure, such systems have already been implemented at the city and state level across the country, including in San Francisco.

“The power of money influencing elections is just frightening,” he said, referencing recent legal decisions such as the Citizens United case, which determined that corporations may openly support candidates through ads and other media. “Campaign finance reform and public financing of elections has helped many people to be able to run for office who otherwise would have been shut out of the process.”

The measure would cost the city $4 per person, amounting to more than $460,000 per year and $1.85 million per four-year election cycle. Funding would be distributed by matching citizen donations to candidates at a 6-to-1 rate. That is, if a Berkeley resident gave the maximum contribution of $50 to a candidate’s campaign, the city would then provide $300. But candidates cannot receive more than a capped maximum from the city, which varies by position — for example, mayoral candidates cannot receive more than $100,000.

According to Worthington, there are no plans to create a new tax to generate funding for the measure.

“The importance of reducing the power of money (in elections) far eclipses the small amount of money that it will cost the city,” he said.

But Sherry Smith, a member of the commission, said the difficulty in getting the measure passed may lie in that cost.

“It’s something that I personally am very much in favor of, and whatever tweaks might be required to make it palatable to the voter, I certainly will favor,” she said. “It’s the practicality of it sometimes that can be a deterrent to its passage.”

According to Smith, a similar measure was proposed in 2006 but was struck down due to the perception that it was too expensive.

Daniel Newman, the president of MapLight, a nonpartisan political research firm, said he thinks the measure will pass because there is “outrage” over decisions like Citizens United.

“This measure is the opportunity for Berkeley voters to actually make a difference here in our community and set an example for other cities and states,” he said.

Contact G. Haley Massara at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @BylineGraph.