Testimony to Philadelphia City Council

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Philadelphia’s City Council's Law and Government Committee was scheduled to consider a proposal by City Councilor Jim Kenney to change or eliminate the the city's contribution limits for municipal elections in the middle of an election cycle; a move prompted by a wealthy mayoral candidate self-financing his campaign. Abolishing or increasing the limits would set up a desperate dash for cash by all candidates just before the primary; forcing candidates to spend even more time with those who can write big checks, and less time with ordinary voters. However, due to public pressure Councilor Kenney pulled his bill before it could be considered. Below is the testimony Public Campaign Action Fund's National Campaigns Director David Donnelly was to submit to the committee in advance of the hearing on the dangers of abolishing contribution limits.


Submitted on February 14th

Committee Chairman Greenlee and distinguished members of the Laws and Government Committee of the Philadelphia City Council, my name is David Donnelly, and as the national campaigns director for Public Campaign Action Fund, I am submitting this written testimony regarding several campaign finance related proposals before the committee today on behalf of my organization.

I would have liked to have been with the council today in order to deliver this testimony in person. I particularly regret that I will not have the opportunity to answer any questions my testimony and this public hearing may raise.

My organization is celebrating its tenth anniversary year in fighting to enact, implement, and promote reform laws that make elections about voters and not about campaign donors. We have worked to pass Clean Elections-style public financing of elections across the country, and it now is law in seven states and two municipalities. The laws, where implemented, have worked as intended and have reduced the money chase for candidates, leveled the financial playing field, and empowered voters and small donors to participate more fully in the electoral process.

Clean Elections policies are different in detail from state to state and city to city, but they are all based on a similar construction: participating candidates qualify for a set amount of public money to run their campaigns after raising a significant number of small donations from their districts. Once qualified, candidates can no longer accept any private contributions and must adhere to strict spending limits. If a Clean Elections candidate is outspent by someone not participating in the system, they receive matching funds, up to a limit, to keep pace.

It is a system that has proven success. In Maine, 84% of current lawmakers were participants in the last election cycle. In Arizona, nine of the 11 statewide office-holders have used it, including Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano.

Unfortunately, the measures before the committee today fall dramatically short of these successful laws. The proposal to remove or further raise the contribution limits, in particular, has two significant flaws:

First, we urge that the City Council not change the rules of this election in midstream. It violates basic rules of fairness and surfaces allegations of favoritism. As charged as this area of law is – I fully recognize there are 17 experts on campaign finance law sitting on the council – and as altruistic as some goals may be in attempting to address the ability of self-funded candidates to outspend others, any mid-election rewrite of these laws will give this council a self-inflicted black eye.

Second, the policy under consideration to raise contribution limits will further place elections into the hands of the wealthy and well-connected. If the council raises the contribution limits, it will encourage candidates for mayor to spend more time with those who can afford to write four, five, and six-figure checks, and less time talking to voters.

If this Committee, and the whole City Council, is serious about considering alternatives like public financing for future elections, my organization would be very happy to aid councilors and their staff in drafting an ordinance based on successful implementation of Clean Elections laws in other states and cities. Unfortunately, implementation of a policy like the public financing measure before you would lead to some considerable and predictable unintended consequences.

For example, while low contributions under this measure would be matched by a four-to-one basis with public dollars, participating candidates, as we read it, would still be allowed to raise large contributions of $2,500 or more, depending on the presence of a self-financed candidate. Would this policy really change how fundraising is done? I think it would provide a relatively modest public subsidy to a system that still relies on large private donations.

We urge this committee to consider advancing the cause of reform, not the cause of one candidate or another. We urge this committee to look to success in other jurisdictions and learn from what works.