Not sure how I feel about this.
Incumbents and wealthy candidates would get more of an advantage under proposed changes to Houston’s campaign finance law, which would effectively double contribution limits per general election cycle and allow many candidates who pour money into their own campaigns to recoup more of that cash.
The modifications, reviewed Thursday by the City Council’s budget and fiscal affairs committee, are designed to clear up rules left ambiguous after the city’s fundraising blackout was ruled unconstitutional last year and voters extended terms to four years from two years.
The looser regulations would allow candidates to raise twice as much from individuals and political action committees ahead of the general election, by splitting the four-year term into two two-year contribution cycles. That means that rather than collecting a maximum of $5,000 from individuals and $10,000 from political action committees per election, office seekers would be able to raise that amount during the first two years of their term, and then do so again during the second two years. The cycle would reset again if a candidate were forced into a runoff.
Mayor Sylvester Turner framed the proposed changes as an effort to maintain continuity with the city’s old two-year election cycle, though some viewed them as a way for incumbents to boost their financial advantage.
With the changes, Turner said, “any person can’t give any more in four years than they would have been able to give under two two-year terms.”
The proposed new rules – which would go into effect July 1 if approved by the council next week – also would permit council and controller candidates to reimburse themselves tens of thousands of dollars more for personal loans.
Local fundraiser James Cardona criticized the changes as “incumbent protection”.
“It’s not a win for the city in elections,” Cardona said. “Now, you have incumbents getting double (maximum contributions) going into an election. … How’s the little guy going to fight that off?”
Texas Southern University political scientist Jay Aiyer agreed the new rules would favor incumbents.
“As a practical matter, you don’t declare for office four years in advance,” he said.
Turner countered that if a challenger wants to run, he or she can start raising money immediately.
“They may look and see what I’m doing, may decide, ‘We’re not going to wait. We want to just get started right now.’ They have that right,” Turner said. “We’re not holding anybody in abeyance or holding them back.”
On the one hand, it does seem reasonable to reflect the fact that we have four-year cycles now instead of two-year cycles in our fundraising rules. Anyone who is ambitious enough to launch a campaign early in the cycle can take advantage of this, which is consistent with the earlier court ruling that tossed out the blackout period. The total amount of money in questions is probably less than you think – while there are plenty of $5K max individual donors, there are only a handful of $10K PAC donations in a given cycle as far as I can tell from looking through all the finance reports as I do. Those who do well with the usual large-check-writing suspects will likely be able to add $50K to $100K to their overall totals. That isn’t nothing, but a decent chunk of that will wind up going to overhead expenses like campaign consultants, and what’s left will likely wind up as an extra couple of mailers. No one is going to take over the airwaves with that kind of money.
That said, this absolutely will benefit incumbents. Jay Aiyer is right, in practice no one starts campaigning that early, though I suppose that could change over time as everyone gets used to the four-year terms. Continuing to limit the donations to $5K for individuals and $10K for PACs per two years seems reasonable, but it does mean that anyone who isn’t already raising money early on will still be limited to the original amounts. If we want to level the field a bit more for later entrants, get rid of two-year periods for the limits and just allow individuals to give a total of $10K and PACs a total of $20K per candidate over each four-year cycle. I’m not sure what the every-two-years aspect of this is supposed to achieve. If we are going to change the limits, this is how I’d prefer to do it. Campos has more.