TwoViews • Is Portland's public campaign financing system worth it? Debate lands on November ballot
by: L.E. BASKOW, Mary Volm (left), shaking hands with Eugene Gray, owner of Eugenio’s Cafe on Southeast Division, unsuccessfully raced to gather 1,000 donations of $5 in January to qualify for public financing to gain a competitive edge against Commissioner Dan Saltzman in the May primary election.

This November, voters should reject the continuation of public financing for politicians seeking election to the Portland City Council. In my view, it is irresponsible for the city of Portland to spend taxpayer dollars to fund political campaigns while basic services such as fire, police, schools, mental health and shelter for the homeless are forced into unacceptable service cuts as a result of dwindling budgets.

For example, beginning July 1, the Portland Fire Bureau will be forced to shut down Fire Rescue 19, at 70th Avenue and East Burnside Street, because the city does not have the $560,000 needed to keep the station open. When seconds count, thousands of people will have to wait minutes longer for emergency medical responses as a result of these cuts, while the city of Portland continues to appropriate money to pay for politicians' campaigns.

To date, the city has diverted $2.6 million in public money to the Campaign Finance Fund, which is enough to fund Fire Rescue 19 for nearly five years.

In the worst economy in decades, funding is increasingly scarce while demands for services increase. Because of a lack of funds, there are individuals who get arrested in Portland for serious crimes who do not spend even one night in jail. Portland police officers are often put in the untenable position of being the first (and sometimes the only) responders for mentally ill citizens in our community, which has had deadly consequences.

Additionally, our school system is being forced to make yet another devastating round of cuts that will have lasting effects on our educational system and our economy. With basic needs such as these going unmet, we can't afford to give political candidates up to $450,000 per election to fund their campaigns.

Portlanders pay among the highest combined water and sewer rates in the United States. Many of the projects that those high rates fund are mandated by the federal government, such as keeping raw sewage out of the Willamette River.

However, that fact does not make it any easier for Portlanders when it comes time to pay their water and sewer bill. While many are sacrificing to cover their expenses, water and sewer ratepayers might not be aware that more than $800,000 of their hard-earned dollars have been used to fund politicians' campaigns for the Portland City Council.

Even if you agree that Portlanders' tax dollars and ratepayer dollars should fund politicians' campaigns, you cannot be happy with how some of those candidates have spent the tax dollars given them.

In a program purported to give grassroots candidates a level playing field, the most recent publicly financed candidate had so little grassroots support he had to pay people with public tax dollars to go door to door to promote his candidacy. He also bought ads on The New York Times' website, which was part of a publicly financed strategy that garnered only 8 percent of the vote in the recent primary election.

Another publicly financed candidate received $144,905 in public money from the city and paid her 16-year-old daughter more than $12,000 for consulting work before it was discovered that she gathered the required qualifying signatures fraudulently. She was ordered to return the $144,905 in public money, most of which she had already spent. To date, she still owes Portland taxpayers $90,340, plus interest.

In November, voters will be asked if they want their tax dollars and water and sewer rate dollars to continue to be spent for politicians' campaigns at the expense of basic services such as fire, police, schools and mental health programs.

Until this city has adequately funded those basic services, I cannot support continuing to fund political campaigns with taxpayer dollars.

Randy Leonard is the commissioner of public safety for the city of Portland.

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