Politics

Portland City Council mulls expanding city’s campaign finance program

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
June 20, 2023 1 p.m.

Portland leaders will consider updating the city’s publicly-funded campaign finance program on Wednesday in preparation for an unprecedented 2024 election. It’s the latest step in the whirlwind process to overhaul the city’s government.

Last fall, Portlander voters passed a plan to expand the size of Portland City Council to 12 members, excluding the mayor. Council is currently made up of five people, including the mayor.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

The policy alterations to the city’s small donor elections program aim to meet the growing council’s needs. But they don’t account for the millions in additional dollars needed to expand the program by 2024.

A group of activists demanding the resignation of Mayor Ted Wheeler and changes to the city's response to homelessness and protests shut down a Portland City Council meeting at City Hall Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.

Portland leaders will consider updating the city’s publicly-funded campaign finance program on Wednesday in preparation for an unprecedented 2024 election. It’s the latest step in the whirlwind process to overhaul the city’s government.

OPB

Any city candidate who commits to solely receiving individual campaign donations under $250 is eligible for the program. To qualify, council candidates must first collect at least 250 donations below $250 to prove they have community support (that number doubles to 500 if the candidate is running for mayor). Portland then matches the first $20 of all individual donations made to that candidate 9-to-1, using money from the city’s general fund. That turns a $20 donation into $180. Candidates are allowed to use this program for both primary and general elections.

The new policy, which was recommended by the volunteer-led Portland Elections Commission, would increase the individual donation limit to $350 for all candidates. It would also increase the matching rate for individual donations to 10-to-1 for the first $25 of any contribution. Since the new voter-approved election changes do away with a primary election, the funds will only be available to candidates in a fall contest.

The city currently caps matching funds for council candidates at $200,000 in the primary election, and $240,000 for a runoff election, meaning candidates can collect a total of $440,000 in public dollars in a year.

Under the new policy, public campaign finance limits would increase if candidates collect more individual donors: candidates who received donations from at least 250 Portlanders could receive up to $100,000 in matching funds, those who collect 750 donations could collect up to $200,000, and those with more than 1,250 donations would be limited to $300,000 in matching dollars. Those changes translate to a cut in matching funds for city council candidates.

Elections leaders believe that eliminating the primary election allows the city to increase match rates and contribution limits for candidates without hurting the department’s budget.

Susan Mottet, director of the city’s Small Donor Elections program, told commissioners at a June 7 meeting that she believes the long-term budget change “would be close to a wash.”

But that won’t be the case for 2024. Mottet said her office will need an influx in city dollars to operate the donation matching program next year.

That’s because the measure to expand Portland’s city government instructed the city to hold an election for all 14 city seats, including the mayor and auditor, in November 2024. Half of the council terms will be for just two years and the other half will be for four. After 2026, each term will last four years, ensuring future elections only see six council seats up for grabs at a time.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

Mottet said her office will need extra money to cover matching costs for the unusually expansive November election.

The Small Donor Elections program receives a $1.4 million budget annually to run and fund the program. Thanks to unspent funds from the 2022 election cycle and past budget cycles, Mottet said she will have just under $6 million headed into the November 2024 campaign season.

Mottet told OPB that her office estimates needing about $4 million more to fully match funds in 2024 and cover operating expenses.

She hopes to secure that money in upcoming city budget decisions.

But, as several commissioners noted last week, that money isn’t certain. At a Wednesday council session, Commissioner Mingus Mapps raised concerns that there won’t be enough money available to cover the program’s expenses in the coming budget cycles, based on estimates from city economists. Commissioner Dan Ryan shared his unease..

“I really want this to succeed,” said Commissioner Dan Ryan at a Wednesday council session. “But no matter how noble the intent, this program won’t help anyone if it runs out of money.”

Ryan also questioned if the program would have adequate staff to operate an expanded program.

Mottet told OPB that she’s planning on expanding hours for her part-time staff – and adding more staff – if it appears necessary. Her program’s budget needs for 2023 include those potential labor costs.

“We have a plan,” Mottet said. “If we don’t get enough funding the matching dollars are what gets compromised, not staff.”

If the program enters the 2024 election cycle underfunded, Mottet said she may temporarily lower the number of matching funds available to candidates.

The Small Donor Elections program was established in 2016 to make citywide elections more affordable and equitable for candidates without a wealthy donor base. This was also one of the key drivers behind last year’s measure to change the city’s form of government. Under the new format, the city will be divided into four geographic districts which will each be represented by three members of council. This aims to make campaigns cheaper to run since commissioners will no longer have to win citywide elections but just appeal to voters living in their district.

City Commissioner Carmen Rubio added an amendment to the proposed policy last week that would go further to prepare the program for the 2024 election season. The addition instructs the Small Donor program to return to the council by December with recommendations on how to improve the program’s penalty and appeals process.

The program received its first appeal last fall, after accusing then-council candidate Rene Gonzalez of not reporting an in-kind donation that went beyond the small donor contribution limit. The program fined Gonzalez $77,000 for accepting discounted office rent from a donor. An administrative law judge overturned this penalty days before the November election.

Mottet said the process was “chaos,” since the city was outsourcing its appeals process through an unfamiliar state system. Mottet wants to move the appeals in-house to the city’s Office of Management and Finance, which regularly hears land use and code enforcement appeals cases. She said the Office of Management and Finance has already told her they’d be happy to take over the work.

“These changes will set us on the right track for next November,” Mottet said.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:
THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

Related Stories