Albuquerque voters are one step closer to voting on a change to the city charter that would increase city funds to some municipal candidates.
At a press conference outside city hall on Tuesday, a coalition of local non-profits announced they collected nearly 28,000 petition signatures aimed at getting a public finance voucher program on the general election ballot in November. The proposed program, called Democracy Dollars and more recently dubbed Burque Bucks, would provide each Albuquerque resident a $25 voucher to contribute to the publicly-financed candidate of their choice.
Former state senator Dede Feldman is a proponent of the proposal. The Albuquerque Democrat said political races get bogged down in high-spending corporations and political special interest groups. She said the vouchers would favor individual voters over those groups when it comes to influence.
“Our intent here is to close, what I call, the influence gap,” Feldman said.
New Mexico Working Families Party State Director and former Albuquerque city councilor Eric Griego said the program would ensure that candidates who choose not to accept private donations can “be as competitive as those who do take that private money.”
“What Democracy Dollars is really about is leveling that playing field,” Griego said.
As a city councilor he helped create the city’s original public financing program in 2005. The original program included a fund-matching component that gave additional money to publicly-financed candidates who were up against privately-funded opponents with more money. In 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court deemed matching funds unconstitutional.
But the city’s original matching program is part of the reason Burque Bucks won’t need a tax increase for funding. According to the campaign’s website, the city already has $3 million fund originally set up to pay for the now-defunct matching program. That money, called the Open and Ethical Elections Fund, is also earmarked for the already-existing public financing program.
In 2009, all three Albuquerque mayoral candidates used public financing, including eventual winner Richard Berry. By 2013, Berry opted not to run a publicly-financed campaign and raised about $800,000 in cash donations.
In 2017 only one mayoral candidate, Mayor Tim Keller, ran his campaign on public money. But, an Albuquerque election ethics board decided that Keller’s campaign violated the provision by accepting checks as in-kind, or goods and services, contributions. Other candidates in 2017 said qualifying for public financing and trying to compete against privately-funded candidates made running for office too difficult. Still, even including in-kind contributions, Keller raised less than half a million dollars whereas his opponent in the runoff election, Dan Lewis, raised more than $800,000 in cash and in-kind donations, combined.
Under the Burque Bucks proposal, publicly-financed candidates could receive up to double the amount they would normally receive, depending on how many residents allocate their vouchers to them.
The proposal cannot go to voters until the Albuquerque city clerk qualifies petition signatures submitted and the Bernalillo County Commission approves ballot space for the November election.