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Philadelphians could be on the hook for political campaign expenses

City Council wants taxpayers to help fund local political campaign in an effort to get more Philadelphians to run for office.

Shown is City Hall in Philadelphia, Wednesday, May 17, 2017.
Shown is City Hall in Philadelphia, Wednesday, May 17, 2017.Read moreAP

City Council wants taxpayers to help fund local political campaigns, in an effort to get more Philadelphians to run for office and perhaps increase voter turnout.

A package of bills to create a publicly funded election system was introduced Thursday at Council's last meeting for the spring session. Councilman Derek Green, one of the sponsors of the bill, said hearings would be held over the summer and continue into the fall. Voters would have to approve a Home Rule Charter change to allow the city to fund elections.

"It's something I've looked at over the years in terms of, what are ways that we can use to engage and increase voter turnout and participation and also reducing money in elections?" Green said before Thursday's meeting. He noted that several cities across the country, including New York City and Los Angeles, have similar laws that match public dollars to private dollars raised.

The proposal calls for candidates for district attorney, controller, Council, sheriff, and city commissioner to raise at least $15,000 through a minimum of 100 contributions from city residents, excluding family members. Then the city would match funds by 5-1. Mayoral candidates would be required to raise at least $50,000 through a minimum of 334 Philadelphia residents for the city to match $5 for every $1 raised.

The city money would be capped at $100,000 per eligible candidate for Council; $300,000 for eligible candidates for controller and district attorney; and $1 million for each eligible mayoral candidate.

In addition to the minimum amount to be raised, a candidate would have to be on the ballot, be current on all city taxes, and meet residency and other eligibility requirements.

The legislation proposes that the Board of Ethics be in charge of managing and implementing the program. The money — estimated to be about $5 million a year to pay for matching funds and staff to manage the program — would come from the general fund.

Board of Ethics Executive Director J. Shane Creamer Jr. said the board had been working with Council and the Law Department for several months to put together the legislation.

"It's a great sign of the health for Philadelphia's public integrity system," Creamer said, adding that one of the benefits of a publicly financed election system is reducing "the influence of large donations in city politics."

"This tends to help unknown challengers," he said. "It helps candidates who don't have access to larger donors, which tends to be newcomers."

Independent expenditures political action committees, which are allowed under federal law, could still spend money on local elections.

For example, had the publicly financed campaign proposal been in place during the recent district attorney primary race, the $1.45 million check written by billionaire George Soros to fund an independent political action committee backing Larry Krasner would have still made an impact on the race. But the individual candidates could have had more money to put up a fight.

If each of the seven Democratic candidates met the requirements for the city to match the campaign contribution, each candidate could have received at least $75,000. That would have been $525,000 paid by taxpayers to help the candidates in their primary campaigns.

Councilman Bobby Henon, who co-sponsored the bill, said he hopes publicly financed campaigns lead to increased voter turnout.

He said "amplifying the smaller dollar contributions from middle-class working families" will allow them to have a larger say in the election and perhaps be more enthusiastic about voting for their chosen candidate.

"We all focus on the high dollars, but I don't want to forget the smaller-dollar contributions and what it means. Not just to the elected officials but for those who are going to be contributing smaller dollars," Henon said.

In addition to the proposed program, Green, Henon and co-sponsors Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Helen Gym, and Mark Squilla also introduced legislation that would change campaign finance laws.

The Council members are suggesting that Philadelphia's campaign finance limits apply to candidates during a four-year cycle, instead of  per calendar year as is current law. Currently, candidates can accept up to $3,000 per individual per year and up to $11,900 per political action committee or business per year. The legislation, if approved, would make the limits $5,000 per individual during an entire four-year election cycle and $15,000 for PACs and businesses for an election cycle.

Green said the legislation will start the public conversation around the issue.

"We have to find the right trigger to allow someone to receive public financing, and what's the circuit breaker to make sure that if we have years that we have a very challenging general fund number, that we are able to deal with that," Green said. "So, we're trying to balance all of those initiatives."