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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

"Clean money" goes on the ballot

Despite the best efforts of the Portland City Council, the city's voters are going to have their say on whether their tax dollars should go to pay for local politicians' political campaigns. The local business interests who are opposed to the city's new public campaign finance system have turned in way more than enough signatures to put it on the May ballot.

This is how it should be. The council should have known this was going to happen, and it should have referred "voter-owned elections" (formerly known as "clean money" before someone asked who had taken the "dirty money") to the voters originally. But it didn't, and now the opponents have forced it onto the ballot, with one strike against it already.

I predict (as I have here from the outset) that "clean money" is going to go down to defeat, and pretty hard. Even if it were the only thing on the ballot, it would have an awfully tough time passing, but as it turns out, it will be voted on at the same time as (a) a desperate pitch by the city for more money for the public school system, and (b) the contested re-election bid of Commissioner Erik Sten, godfather of "clean money," who will likely have cashed in on the new system himself. All that, plus the fact that the council pushed it through without offering the voters their say, adds up to a witch's brew of negatives that will likely doom this program, at least in its current form. Not to mention the continuing controversy over the aerial tram [rim shot], the police and fire retirement and disability fiasco, another run at a tax abatement for the Alexan tower in the SoWhat district, and probably other questionable expenditures of public money that will be in the headlines throughout the campaign.

Whatever the merits of "clean money" may be, this may very well boil down to a referendum on the City Council's priorities. Mayor Potter wants to channel all the discontent in that area into his friendly little study groups, but unfortunately, he and his colleagues are about to get an earful of "vision" at the ballot box on May 16.

In light of who's leading the opposition to "clean money," I'm not as down on it as I used to be. I might even vote for it. But especially given the way it was handled, I suspect it's going to be a short-lived experiment indeed.

Comments (24)

If it was "voter owned elections" then why didn't they let the owners vote? Even though they promised us a vote in a few years, "after a chance to see how it worked" that promise was hollow. The current council cannot bind a future council to put that vote on the ballot. I believe that was Randy Leonard's reason for his no vote, and rightly so.

Trammell Crow Residential has withdrawn its tax exemption application for the Alexan project.
John F. Warner
Sr. Development Manager
Portland Development Commission

Well, either the voters own the elections or the developers do. Your choice. Indeed, anyone who looks at who contributes to local elections will find that developers buy influence. You can split hairs between "access" and "influence" but it's naive to think it's any other way.

We elect the people who run the government for us. Why do we need voter ratification of what they do? If we need that, why do we need them at all? If we don't like what they do, can't we just run them out?

So, in your world, I suppose we should allow the voters to vote on every single budget item that exceeds one one-thousandth of the total budget. (Which is what VOE is estimated to cost.)

We don't elect the council to think for us. We elect them to run the city. Their job is to provide cops, firefighters, parks, streets, sewer and water. They have too much authority as it is. Those five guys can vote to put all of us into any amount of debt to cover any bond, without limitation. Soon they will ask us to give them the authority to levy a citywide income tax, an authority that they currently do not have.

Unless I'm mistaken the city charter says that council members must recuse themselves from any vote in which they may have a conflict of interest. How was it not a conflict of interest for them to vote on a system of campaign financing that could potentially benefit all of them? If they'd conformed with the charter, they should have all recused themselves and the ordinance would never have come to a vote.

"We don't elect the council to think for us."

Well, yes we do. Unfortunately, you can't run a government without a little bit of thinking. (That may in fact be the crux of some of the problems with government.)

"How is it not a conflict of interest . . . .?"

Since all candidates would have access to the "voter-owned elections" fund, I don't see the conflict of interest. In fact, given an incumbent's advantage in fund-raising and general voter recognition, I would think the program favors outsiders over incumbents.

"They have too much authority as it is. Those five guys can vote to put all of us into any amount of debt to cover any bond, without limitation."

Bah, Chicken Little, the same was said about Katz and before her Clark and even back to ole Goldy, the sky still hasn't fallen, or our credit rating for that matter! If the people in Portland were so disinfranchised with their leadership, these five guys wouldn't be sitting on the council.

Kari, you have become a very argumentative fellow lately.

or our credit rating for that matter!

I'm so tired of this mantra. Read the City Club report on the police and fire pension, and I think you'll see that the sky really is about to fall.

you might be tired of it Jack, but if the credit rating agencies were overly concerened our leaders were ignoring the severity of the pension problem, or even that our elected leaders were carelessly spending money on "voter owned elections" or "money pit trams" for that matter, they would have previously dropped the city's rating a long time ago; similiar to what they did to the state a few years back. Obviously, since they aren't trying to stir up web page hits with overblown controversy, they can probably look at the picture a bit clearer than yourself.

Obviously, since they aren't trying to stir up web page hits with overblown controversy, they can probably look at the picture a bit clearer than yourself.

Oh, you wound me. Guess I'll close up shop.

Kari's attitude is typical..."it's only 1/1000th of the budget."

Problem is, when frivolous, non-essential spending is added up, it turns out to be a hell of a lot more than 1/1000th of the budget.

Maybe, just maybe, that 1/1000th of the budget should be spent on infrastructure or safety. Something essential.

Kari sells web sites to politicians for a living. "Clean money" may be more than 1/1000th of his budget.


As someone with three (soon to be four) children in our public schools, I'm disappointed to see this on the ballot along with the income tax.

I hope the tax doesn't get swallowed in negativity about the elections proposal. If we don't staunch the 50 million dollar wound in the schools budget, we're in deep trouble.

Kari et al:

Supporters of "Clean Money" originally planned to put the issue on the November 2005 ballot. While part of the strategy was to create a wedge issue in the mayor's race, the principle of letting the voter's decide whether to adopt public financing of council races was right.

In other jurisdictions that have adopted public financing, like New York City, the issue was addressed through charter reform.

We elect people to decide how tax dollars should be spent. Where those dollars might benefit our elected officials directly in their campaigns for reelection, a vote of the people, prior to implementation, is not unreasonable or without precedent.

Nick Fish

Nick, the counter to your argument is that by placing it on the ballot before voters actually experience a full cycle, you're subjecting the idea to the same kind of big-money sound bite politics that this is an antidote for.

But the whole point is academic since it now appears to be on the ballot.

So where do you stand on the ballot question? Yes - repeal it, or No, keep it?

I'm kinda happy to see that no one's touched on the point I'd like to make yet: assuming The Oregonian's report isn't simply out to make the opposition look stupid, the opponents of public reform are being just a wee bit dishonest in tying public campaigns to the schools shortfall.

Overall, though, let the public vote on it. What's the harm in that? Kari's got that point about it's miniscule fiscal impact, but that's a bit beside the point. Money isn't the correct measure for this anyway; this is about electoral mechanics and it's a pretty significant shift.

Should a prospective candidate need to suck up to the PBA to get enough money for a respectable campaign? Really, how much do we value our democracy? This is a question we're all asking at the federal level, and the same applies at the city level.

Jack-- you seem to get this when you refer to Abramoff and the GOP culture of corruption... why do you feel differently about efforts here? This was a bold move, and yet you're so quick to dismiss anything to do with the council...

The argument that it's not much money, is not persuasive to me. Look at all the dedicated neighborhood folks struggling to raise just a fraction of that amount to keep their community centers open. The city can't tell folks out of one side of their mouth -- we can't afford it, and out of the other side, oh that's just pocket change, finding that'll be no problem...

I'd suggest instead putting it in terms of return on investment. After all, you've got the PBA folks moaning about what a mess our city is in -- well, under just what election-financing dynamic were the folks elected who got us here?

Oh, yeah, let's have more of the same... You think?

It just may be that this experiment will result in the election of at least one city council candidate who will break the mold (and the hold) of certain entrenched special interests on our city. (I am a supporter of Amanda Fritz' candidacy.)

If that results in sharper questions being asked up front, and thus better decisions being made at the end of the day, then the system has certainly returned our citizen investment in it. (Just imagine if Amanda had been on the council, at the time she was raising questions on the Planning Commission about the tram?) Let's see, how many decades of elections might that alone have paid for?

So, though I've had some strong reservations about this plan, I'll not be voting to kill it now. If it fails, on the heads of the council who brung it -- be it. If it succeeds, we all win.

And, I can't imagine a clothes-pin strong enough to kill the stench if one were to crawl into bed with certain of the backers of this repeal effort. Yes yes, I know, it's about the children...

I wasn't going to jump back into this thread, but since Jack brings up the question of the websites I make for candidates...

Yes, it's true that I make my money from campaign spending. As I'm pretty sure we discussed either here on Blue some months ago, anything that reduces campaign budgets reduces my bottom line.

So, supporting VOE actually hurts me financially.

This is no longer a theoretical concern. I've now signed on with Sten and Saltzman (one VOE candidate, one not). In both cases, with a $150,000 budget (not the usual $500k city campaign), my proposed budget was substantially lower than I would otherwise propose. The work, of course, is also somewhat less -- though most of the hit comes out of my margin.

VOE is reducing campaign costs. As someone who feeds at that trough, that is to my personal chagrin.

I still support Voter-Owned Elections. Go figure.

If you're on Sten's campaign payroll, any opinion you offer on "clean money" is beyond suspect.

I joined his campaign a couple of weeks ago. I testified at City Council eight months ago.

I am building Erik's site because I support him, not the other way around.

In the past, on another campaign, I had an opportunity to work for either side (of a ballot measure). I ended up choosing to work for the side that was willing to spend 50% less money - because I agreed with the position.

How about a "try it you'll like it" foray into dedicating 10% of the PDOT budget on new sidewalks, secondary street improvements, and pedestrian trails (split evenly, three ways)?

Five years from now, after the good people of Portland have seen what can be accomplished without LID's or Don Baack's volunteer corps, I would bet they vote not only to retain, but to increase the earmark to 20%.

My point is, to earmark funds for a special purpose with the proviso "if we don't like it 5 years from now we can repeal it" is no way to select new budget initiatives in times of scarcity. Call it "trial and error" or "shoot from the hip" public policy. $2 million here and $3 million there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.

If, five years from now, it turns out the SoWhat Ski Lift is a wildly expensive boondoggle that has little or no benefit to Portland Taxpayers, can we vote to rescind the City's contribution to OHSU and SoWhat?

How about a vote on PGE Park? A vote on building Wapato without an operating budget? A vote on Temporary Income Taxes that never expire?

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