Can Tax Dollars Buy Better Candidates Than Private Contributors?

Should voters stop public funding of Cincinnati City Council campaigns before it begins? That's the question Issue 8 asks. About three years ago Citizens for Fair Elections, a coalition of 19 grass

Should voters stop public funding of Cincinnati City Council campaigns before it begins? That's the question Issue 8 asks.

About three years ago Citizens for Fair Elections, a coalition of 19 grassroots groups, began working on campaign finance reform patterned on Tucson, Ariz. and New York City.

In 2001 the group gathered more than 7,000 signatures to place a charter amendment on the ballot, and it passed by 547 votes. The reforms include a $2-to-$1 match for candidates who agree to certain spending and contribution limits. To qualify for public funding, council candidates must raise $5,000 through 150 contributions of $10 or more. Mayoral candidates need twice the number of dollars and contributions.

Candidates with public funding can't spend more than three times a council member's annual salary, or a total of about $165,000. Mayoral candidates top out at about $330,000.

The reforms are scheduled to take effect with the 2003 council races — unless Issue 8 passes.

Some of the same conservatives who tried to defeat reform last year are backing this new charter amendment, which would prevent tax dollars from being spent on political campaigns.

The key figure behind Issue 8 is John Kruse of Hyde Park, a salesman for Sun Microsystems. Kruse unsuccessfully ran for city council in 1993 and 1995 as a Republican. He believes voters will shoot down public campaign funding.

Kruse says public funding will lead to abuse and fraud. For example, what's to keep a candidate from buying a campaign truck to drive long after an election?

One answer is the Cincinnati Elections Commission, the five-member board formed by the same charter amendment that created public financing. The commission is still drafting policies.

Kruse acknowledges he doesn't have specific examples of fraud from New York or Tucson. Greg Bensinger, spokesman for the New York City Campaign Finance Board, says some candidates have exceeded spending and contribution limits, but the board hasn't seen the type of fraud Kruse predicts.

"I would think that would be very difficult to do," he says.

Candidates are some of the best watchdogs on other candidates, according to Bill Woods, co-chair of Citizens for Fair Elections.

But Kruse says he wasted money in his own campaigns and others probably have, too. He regrets buying 50,000 cups with his name on them, for example.

"If there's going to be abuse, I'd rather it not be my precious, hard-earned tax dollars," Kruse says.

City tax dollars should be used on city services, not political speech, he says. The city has at least a $35 million budget deficit. Public financing of campaigns would cost an estimated $1.5 million to $2.5 million every two years, Kruse says.

"I just can't fathom our city spending that kind of money at this time," he says.

But campaign-spending patterns from 2001 suggest the city's cost might only be $500,000, according to Woods. Only 17 of the 30 mayoral and council candidates in 2001 received at least 150 donations, according to an analysis by the Citizens Policy Center, a division of Ohio Citizen Action. The other 13 wouldn't have qualified for public funding.

Kruse says public funding sends politicians the wrong message: "something for nothing." He equates it to welfare.

"What kind of a value are we proliferating?" Kruse says.

Woods rejects the comparison.

"It's not welfare for candidates," he says. "It's really about giving the elections process back to the people."

Woods says public funding might save the city money in the long run. How much money goes to contributor welfare, he asks. The Citizens Policy Center found that 23 of the top 50 campaign donors in 2001 had contracts with the city.

Kruse says public financing tackles a problem that doesn't exist. He points to Laura Baumann, who raised $123,543 but finished 16th in the 2001 council race. Councilman Paul Booth raised only $31,555 but finished eighth.

However, the two non-incumbents who won in 2001 — David Pepper and David Crowley — raised $266,511 and $132,132, more than the other non-incumbents.

Woods uses a different example. With public funding, maybe Laketa Cole, a first-time candidate who raised $47,455 and finished 10th, would have been elected.

"I think it especially helps women and minority candidates who don't have name recognition," Woods says.

Kruse believes hard work and good ideas attract money, but Woods says elections are supposed to be about ideas, not how much a candidate can raise.

The conduct of the Issue 8 campaign seems to illustrate the need for campaign finance reform. Last year the reform foes didn't file a finance report by Oct. 24, the last deadline before the election. The group No Taxes for Council Campaigns didn't receive any contributions before Oct. 24, according to attorney Chris Finney.

Voters didn't learn until Dec. 13 that the group raised $68,500, including $20,000 from the Hamilton County Republican Party, $10,000 each from Fifth-Third Bank and West Ad Inc. and $5,000 each from Convergys, Procter and Gamble and US Bancorp of Minneapolis.

By contrast, Citizens for Fair Elections raised about $11,000, mostly from smaller donations.

This year the Issue 8 PAC didn't file a campaign finance report by Oct. 24, again because Kruse says it hadn't received any contributions. However, he says, some of the same donors from last year gave $37,000 to help get Issue 8 on the ballot, an effort that began in June. But all that happened before there was an official Issue 8 PAC, Kruse says, so there's no legal reason to disclose contributions.

"I could (disclose), but I don't want to," he says.

Kruse later promised to reveal his group's contributions but then decided against it, saying he didn't think the information would receive fair handling.

"I believe we're operating in accordance with the law," he says.

Kruse released only the names of his group's top five contributors: Kroger, Fifth-Third Bank, US Bancorp, Bob Castellini and Craig Maier. He declined to reveal the amounts of their contributions.

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.