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Portland Gives Publicly Financed Campaigns A 2nd Try


File photo. Portland will try out a new public campaign finance system for its elections.

File photo. Portland will try out a new public campaign finance system for its elections.

Alan Sylvestre/OPB

Portland’s on-again, off-again relationship with public campaign financing is back on.

The City Council voted Wednesday to create a new system of publicly funded elections, known as a small-donor multiple match, modeled after New York City’s public campaign financing.

The city will provide matching funds to eligible candidates for mayor, city commissioner and auditor, with funding starting in 2019 for the 2020 election.

To qualify for the public matching dollars, candidates for mayor will have to raise at least $5,000 from 500 individuals. Candidates for commissioner or auditor would have to raise at least $2,500 from 250 people.

In exchange for agreeing to limit individual contributions to $250 or less and abiding by other fundraising limits, qualified candidates will receive a 6-to-1 match for campaign contributions of $50 or less.

Oregon is among a handful of states that impose a limit on individual political contributions, due to language in the state constitution protecting freedom of speech.

The matching fund will be created using city tax dollars. Funding for the program is capped at .02 percent of the city’s general fund, or roughly $1.2 million this year.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who first won her seat using the city’s previous campaign financing system and championed the measure, said the new system will encourage more people to participate in local government.

“We’ll restore trust in government, and that’s the biggest challenge that we’ve got,” she said after the measure passed 3-2. “Even when we make the right decisions, people don’t trust that we’re making them for the right reasons, and that’s got to change.”

Studies of New York’s so-called multiple donor match program have shown that it has led candidates to spend time campaigning in a greater number of the city’s neighborhoods.

Portland’s two lame-duck council members, Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick voted for the measure.

Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman voted against it. They wanted to ask voters to decide whether to adopt the new system.

Voters repealed Portland’s previous attempt at publicly funded elections in 2010, after a high-profile case of fraud. 

“The public was asked, the public spoke, and the program was repealed,” said Fish. “I fear by bypassing the voters, a well-intentioned proposal to strengthen public trust could instead end up undermining it.”

Fritz said the new public financing system differs substantially from Portland’s previous effort, known as voter-owned elections, and has worked in New York for more than 30 years.

“We’re not inventing something like we did with voter-owned elections. We’re using something that’s tried and true,” she said.

The system adopted by the council Wednesday is built around providing a public match to fundraising dollars, essentially encouraging candidates to continue fundraising throughout the election cycle. The previous system awarded qualified candidates a single large grant that was meant to fully cover the cost of campaigning. 

The new system will also be housed in the city’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement, after the city auditor refused to have her elections division manage the program. The auditor said the program is not adequately staffed or funded.

Fritz said the Office of Neighborhood Involvement will hire two staff members in July 2017 to begin developing the program. The council will hold an additional hearing next year to approve the program’s administrative rules.

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