Oops, They Did It Again -- Public Campaign Finance Advocates Bemoan Latest 'Raid'

Public campaign financing isn't just a political football here in San Francisco -- it's a football so frequently kicked, punted, or otherwise buffeted the laces have come undone. And is there any money to fix it? Don't ask!

The latest instance of San Francisco politicos stating they like the idea of candidates not owing fealty to major donors, but the public -- but don't like paying for it -- will come tomorrow. During the summer, the Board of Supervisors restored $1 million Mayor Gavin Newsom had vacuumed out of the public financing pool -- yet, at the same meeting, suddenly declared the $1M on reserve for either public financing or the Convention Facilities Department. And at tomorrow's Budget and Finance Committee Meeting, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi has proposed shooting that money to the convention center.

Public finance advocates say this now leaves the pool roughly $1 million short. Even if the supes pump the customary amount into the reserve fund next year -- and that is a massive, monumental "if" -- the balance still appears to be well shy of the anticipated minimum amount required for the 2011 mayoral race. 

Public financing -- in which funds are given to candidates who can reach fund-raising plateaus -- has been in place for San Francisco supervisoral candidates since 2000 and mayoral candidates since 2005. And almost as soon as city law established that $1.9 million was to be placed in reserve for public financing each year, San Francisco politicians -- namely the mayor -- found ways to drain an equal or greater amount.

Our calls to Mirkarimi have not yet been returned -- to be fair to the man, there is a full board meeting today. In the past, he's said the specter of lost jobs spurred his decision to send the $1 million to the convention center.

Fair enough, say public finance advocates. Pitting public finance against poignant, pressing matters may be the logical -- and politically expedient -- thing to do. But it also ensures public financing will always lose out.

"We shouldn't have to argue against school lunches or potholes or any other thing," said Rob Arnow, the co-author of the city's 2005 mayoral public financing law. "Rather, we've argued in the general sense that public financing is important -- and saves money in the long run. Governments have huge budget problems because they act in the interest of campaign contributors demanding favors -- and legislation helping them doesn't help the public."

Messages for Ethics Commission Executive Director John St. Croix asking the balance of the city's public financing fund have not yet been returned. But Arnow pieced together the year's additions -- and subtractions -- to the fund before declaring this latest move leaves 2011 mayoral hopefuls in the lurch.

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