City on verge of scaling back public financing 

San Francisco's public finance program is on the verge of being scaled back amid the threat of legal challenges and legal bills. But not everyone wants to cave in, which could mean litigation and a legal bill paid with hundreds of thousands of tax payer dollars.

Changing the program will take eight votes on the Board of Supervisors, a pretty tall order.

For Supervisor Sean Elsbernd the choice is easy.

“I’m not interested in forking over more taxpayer dollars to defend something that is … quite clearly out of whack,” Elsbernd said during Monday’s Board of Supervisors Rules Committee meeting. The committee sent the bill out for a vote by the full board Tuesday.

Supervisor Jane Kim said she doesn’t support the amendment.

“It’s important for candidates to be able to stand against special interest contributions,” Kim said. She said that “there is some question as to whether litigation would be successful.”

Elsbernd replied: “You are grasping at straws to stand on a principal that is going to end up costing The City hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

What prompted the change was a Supreme Court ruling in June that found Arizona’s public financing program unconstitutional.

Nine mayoral candidates are receiving public financing. So far they have received a combined $3.6 million. They agree to spend no more than $1,475,000 on their campaign in a total combination of matching public and private contributions. Candidates receive up to $900,000 in public funds, but if independent expenditures for or against a candidate exceed that limit, then the spending limit is lifted accordingly and the candidate can receive more matching public funds.

But the legislation would eliminate the increase in matching funds. Simply put, there would be a hard cap on the $900,000 no matter how much third-party spending against or in support of a candidate was spent.

“Our concern is that this particular similarity is vulnerable to a challenge in court,” said John St. Croix, executive director of the Ethics Commission, which has recommended the legislation. “The Ethics Commission has acted to forestall perhaps what could be an expensive exercise.” St. Croix said the change “maintains the fundamental elements of public financing.”

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