Democracy Fund Revisits Donation Matches

Diana Li Photo

For the first time since October, New Haven’s public-financing agency mustered a quorum—and debated the rules for tying candidates’ matching dollars to the rise in the cost of living.

The Fund, a seven-member board that runs the city’s municipal public-finance system for mayoral candidates, has for months had several unfilled openings. So it needs all four appointed members present to reach a quorum, a feat that eluded it for three months, until Wednesday night. (That subject may come up Thrusday when the Fund’s new administrator meets with Mayor Toni Harp, who’s responsible for filling those openings.)

One member who did show up to Wednesday night’s meeting at City Hall was ill, so the meeting was cut short, with most items tabled until the next monthly meeting.

Still, members did discuss clarifying the Fund’s rule on cost-of living adjustments. The rule states that every four years, starting in 2008, many of the figures should be adjusted for cost-of-living and increase based on the Consumer Prix Index (CPI), a measurement of cost-of-living changes.

The Democracy Fund approves and hands out government matching money to the campaigns of qualifying mayoral candidates. New Haven is the only city in Connecticut with a municipal financing program, which aims to enable more candidates to compete for public office and limit the influence of special-interest donors. The Fund became a significant election issue in the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary, with Justin Elicker and Kermit Carolina opting in and Henry Fernandez and current mayor Toni Harp opting out.

Because of the CPI adjustment, many of the numbers in the Fund’s formula changed in 2012. Individual contributions were originally limited to $300; this figure was adjusted to $370 in 2012. Both the initial grant qualifying candidates receive from the city and the cap on personal funds candidates can use increased from $15,000 to $19,000. The total limit on a candidate’s expenditures throughout a campaign increased from $300,000 to $368,000. (The ordinance requires the new values to be rounded either to the nearest $5 or nearest thousand dollar value, depending on the value).

However, the ordinance makes it unclear whether the $25 limit on matching funds should also be adjusted for CPI. This $25 figure is the limit on what the city will match: right now, the city matches all qualifying contributions two-to-one until $25. In other words, a $10 donation becomes $30, a $25 donation becomes $75, and a $50 donation becomes $100.

This $25 cap was the only figure other than the $10 minimum that was not adjusted in 2012 for inflation, as it is the only value not specified in the ordinance that needs to be adjusted for cost of living. The board discussed Wednesday night whether this omission was an oversight or intentional, and agreed to take up the issue and vote on the potential adjustment at next month’s meeting.

The one figure that will certainly not be adjusted is the $10 minimum for qualifying contributions that will persist despite CPI adjustments.

“Whether it was an oversight to omit [the adjustment for the limit on matching funds] or was actually something that should not be changed, the $10 minimum won’t be changed to make sure people can access and participate,” Fund administrator Alyson Heimer said.

Fund Chair Jared Milfred added that it was simply not part of the Board of Alders’ intention to change the minimum, based on a discussion the alders had when they passed the ordinance.

Regardless of what the board decides regarding the matching funds limit, all other figures besides the $10 minimum will undergo another round of adjustments in 2016, as per the four-year cycle stated in the ordinance.

In addition to the discussion about CPI adjustments, the board looked ahead to planning a presentation to the Board of Alders regarding the cost and feasibility of expanding the Democracy Fund to other citywide offices, including alders. Former administrator Ken Krayeske made a presentation to the Board of Alders about how much extending public financing to alders would cost, but his estimates were likely too high, as he assumed all races were contested in his calculations.

Jared Milfred Milfred created new estimates last year based on a representative sample of 32 aldermanic campaigns in 2009, 2011, and 2013. He found that on average, 10 candidates compete in contested general elections and 23 compete in contested primary elections, and after excluding outliers, the average campaign spent $3,367. Heimer hopes to present these new numbers to the Board while getting their feedback and thoughts on whether they’d like to see an expansion of public funding to other municipal offices.

Administrator Heimer plans to discuss her vision of the Fund and its future in her meeting Thursday with Mayor Harp. Heimer had expressed hope to get more members appointed to the board to avoid the perennial problem of reaching quorum.

The Fund started this fiscal year with $342,581.28 and does not plan on asking for new disbursements for the upcoming fiscal year.

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Comments

posted by: jim1 on January 29, 2015  10:28am

How many times do we the voters have to say no to fund the alders..

posted by: robn on January 29, 2015  11:17am

Outliers? Lest we forget that in recent aldermanic elections the Union coalition radically outspent any competitors and crushed any competition into the dirt. Simultaneously, they coopted the charter revision conversation and fooled a majority of residents into believing a ridiculously large 30 person BOA is good for democracy (it’s not..,it’s a divide and conquer strategy that allows continuing lack of accountability).

posted by: Brewski on January 29, 2015  12:33pm

While I think this fund was generally a good idea, I’ve always had a big issue with the fact it rewards major party candidates with easier access to more money than independents or minor party candidates. An independent candidate will obviously not participate in a primary, which is supported with substantial funds from this system. These public funds support a significant amount of advertising and name-recognition building for major party candidates (only), even if a candidate does not face a serious primary challenge.

This has always struck me as unfair. All candidates that qualify should have access to the same amount of funding throughout the campaign.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 29, 2015  2:14pm

“Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”
― H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy

posted by: abg22 on January 30, 2015  7:34pm

I’m having trouble understanding the board’s priorities right now. They need to invite a representative of the mayor’s office to come to their next meeting and explain what changes the mayor would like to see to the program. Their first, second and third order of business needs to be addressing the flaws in the Democracy Fund ordinance that the mayor believes were exposed in 2013, namely the ‘loopholes’ regarding exploratory committees and the ability for participating candidates to take public funds in a primary, and run again in the general election outside the system.

The Democracy Fund’s ability to function right now is completely dependent on expanding the board membership, which requires support of the mayor, who did not participate in the program in 2013 and has been very critical of the program. Unless the program is changed, the mayor is not likely to participate in 2015, which could leave the program without a single participating candidate for the first time in its history. In terms of political support for the noble experiment of public financing of municipal elections in New Haven, that would be devastating.

So I am a little flabbergasted that the board is not specifically addressing Harp’s criticisms of the program, and instead continuing to discuss irrelevancies like expanding the program to aldermanic races, for which there is essentially zero political support. The message of the Democracy Fund right now needs to be: Mayor Harp, please appoint new members so that we can take steps to address your criticisms of the program, and place public financing in New Haven on a strong and sustainable footing. I hope Ms. Heimer articulates that message in her meeting with the mayor.

Also, @Bruce Crowder, the Democracy Fund ordinance does not privilege ‘major’ party candidates over minor party candidates. I think you may be confusing it with the state’s Citizens Election Program, which does disadvantage third-party and unaffiliated candidates.

posted by: robn on January 31, 2015  8:22am

ABG22,

It shouldn’t be hard to understand why the loophole isn’t a big priority. Harp still raised twice as much as Elicker, mostly from out of town wealthy individuals, private, state and municipal union organizations. To repeat what President Obama just said, “that’s what mayors do.”

#snakeoil #threefifths #boom!

posted by: Brewski on January 31, 2015  9:13am

abg22, I totally agree with your assessment of board priorities. My point about the major party advantage is this…

“The Democracy Fund provides public matching funds up to $125,000.00 and a public financing grant of $19,000.00 for both the primary elections and the general election.”

Candidate A is a major party candidate facing a primary opponent. He or she can receive up to $144,000 for the primary PLUS $144,000 for the general election for a total of $288,000 of public money.

Candidate B is an independent candidate and, by definition, will not face a primary opponent. He or she has access to $0 during primaries and $144,000 during the general election. This is $144,000 LESS than Candidate A.

Also, I believe there are different thresholds of viability for minor party candidates. I will check and get back to you on that if I have time, maybe these rules have changed in the last few years.

posted by: abg22 on February 3, 2015  6:32pm

@Bruce Crowder, if your criticism is that having the opportunity to participate in the Democracy Fund twice (in a primary and general election) confers an advantage, then you are correct. I think most people would say that having to win two elections rather than one is not conferring an advantage. In any event your beef then is really with the existence of partisan primaries in the first place, and not with the Democracy Fund, which is about as neutral as possible when it comes to major versus minor parties.

posted by: Brewski on February 3, 2015  7:21pm

Actually, the advantage would be over independent candidates, not minor party candidates (who can participate in primaries as well). The main issue is that all candidates should have access to the same amount of campaign money. A second issue is that public money should not be used for internal party elections, in which the general public can not participate.

I understand that it is the intent of the democracy fund to be neutral, but clearly this issue puts some candidates at a disadvantage over others, simply by the nature of not being registered to a party.