When interim Mayor Ed Lee finally decided in August he would seek a full four-year term, he opted not to participate in The City’s public campaign financing program. Citing San Francisco’s dismal budget situation, Lee said he just couldn’t take taxpayer money for his political quest in good conscience.
But now, because of the breakneck campaign spending by Lee and his supporters, even more of that public money he wanted to protect could be handed out to other candidates in the mayoral race.
Nine mayoral candidates accepting public financing may now be able to receive $50,000 more in taxpayer dollars because Lee and independent expenditure committees supporting him exceeded the spending cap in the race on Wednesday.
Candidates accepting public financing had agreed to a $1.475 million spending cap. But The City’s rules allow the cap to be raised if independent committees and candidates such as Lee — not subject to the limits — spend more than the cap amount.
After Lee and his supporters busted the cap Wednesday, the Ethics Commission raised the spending limit by $100,000 and also increased the maximum amount candidates can receive in public financing from $900,000 to $950,000.
Raising the amount of public financing could put The City in a tricky legal situation following a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on a similar public financing scheme in Arizona.
The court held that when independent expenditure groups trigger a rise in the public financing cap, it violates First Amendment rights because it could force well-funded candidates to decide between more spending — thus, speaking out more — or limiting fundraising to prevent opponents from also raising more money.
Despite that, Ethics Commission Executive Director John St. Croix said if candidates seek public financing above the cap, they will get it.
“That’s what the current rules are,” St. Croix said. “That’s what’s true today.”
Supervisor Mark Farrell recently tried to amend The City’s campaign-finance rules so they would comply with the Supreme Court decision. Farrell proposed creating a “hard cap” on public financing that wasn’t tied to campaign spending, but the Board of Supervisors didn’t pass it.
Tony Winnicker, Lee’s campaign spokesman, called on candidates not to seek the extra public match.
“That would be directly challenging what the Supreme Court said was legal,” Winnicker said. “There’s nothing in the public financing law that says they’re obligated to take it.”
It could be a moot point if they don’t reach the threshold, but some candidates closest to the $900,000 cap — including City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who has received $683,109 so far, and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who has received $536,663 to this point — said they won’t accept the extra public money in the name of protecting The City’s legal interests.
Chiu supported Farrell’s recent unsuccessful effort to create a hard cap.
“It’s the right — and legal — thing to do,” said Chiu’s campaign spokesman, Addisu Demissie.
Some mayoral candidates have declined extra funding.
$1.475M: Previous spending cap for San Francisco mayoral campaigns
$1.575M: New spending cap for San Francisco mayoral campaigns
$900,000: Previous cap on public financing available for each candidate
$950,000: New cap on public financing available for each candidate
$4.2M: Public financing given to mayoral candidates to date
Source: San Francisco Ethics Commission