Under the program, council candidates who collect enough $10 donations to qualify for funding receive $1 of city general fund money for every dollar donated to them by individuals. As part of the program, candidates have to limit spending to just less than $80,000 this year.
City Clerk Kathy Detrick presently has $245,000 available to spend on the public matching-fund program, but with Republican incumbents Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar bypassing the system this year, the actual expenditure should be lower.
Since it was adopted, the program has been extremely popular with candidates. Democrat Tom Volgy, the former mayor and council member who helped design the program in 1985, points out that those who have not signed a contract have always lost their elections. But with Republican incumbents declining to participate this year, combined with the recent proliferation of independent campaign spending in support of some candidates, that historic record may be in jeopardy.
Independent campaigns raise large sums of money and, Volgy complains, often use that cash for negative advertising against a candidate in hopes of driving down voter turnout.
"Independent campaigns are obviously an attempt to destroy the public matching-fund program," says Volgy, who was targeted by an independent campaign during his unsuccessful 2003 bid to reclaim the mayor's seat. "The matching-fund program needs to be updated because of the independent committees. To maintain the program's integrity, for every $1 spent by them (against a candidate), that person should receive 50 cents of extra matching funds. That way, the other side would be contributing to a (participating) candidate's campaign, and that would have a chilling affect on independent campaigns."
Two years ago, mayoral and council candidates combined to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their election efforts. In addition, several independent campaigns poured almost $250,000 into the mix, mostly opposing Volgy and other Democratic candidates.
In response, with three City Council positions up for grabs this year, a Democrat-led independent campaign has already been established. Peter Hormel, chair of Tucsonans for Accountable Government, says his group will focus on the voting records of incumbents Ronstadt and Dunbar.
Hormel says that having two current officeholders able to spend as much money as they raise leaves his party's candidates at a "severe disadvantage." The first indication of the size of that financial disparity will be shown this week, when all the candidates publicly reveal how much campaign money they have accumulated so far.
Hormel says Ronstadt and Dunbar are "trying to evade (funding) limitations."
Volgy bemoans the Democratic-led independent campaign, but understands it. "People get frustrated and think they have to fight fire with fire," he says. "But elections shouldn't be decided on who has more money. The public may say both sides are playing the same game."
Hormel says Tucsonans for Accountable Government will compensate for the fact that the matching-fund program is no longer holding down the cost of campaigns. While he wishes independent campaigns didn't exist, he says that Democrats need to counter the efforts of Republicans. "We don't want to get beaten up all the time," he says.
Pima County Republican Party chair Judy White counters that it's the Democrats who should stop "blasting" Republican candidates for not participating in the matching-fund program.
"I think each candidate should make a choice how they will collect campaign money," says White. "My gripe is people talking about big companies donating to candidates."
Corporate campaign contributions are illegal under Arizona law, and individuals are limited to contributing $370 to each candidate, although contributions to independent campaigns are unlimited.
While White thinks the city's matching-fund program is helpful for first-time office seekers, she believes each person should be free to chose whether to take public dollars.
"With the city budget crunch, I applaud those candidates who don't participate," she says.
Ronstadt says his decision to forego public financing involves the funding source.
"I think if it weren't general fund money, I would be using it," Ronstadt says. "But we've spent four years cutting the budget and implementing new fees."
Ronstadt says the program would be improved if it had a dedicated funding source. "If they weren't general fund dollars, I'd probably would use the matching funds."
Volgy calls the two Republicans' decision not to participate in the program "astounding."
"It may really backfire on them," he says. "They're saying to the public that they won't follow the ground rules. That sends the message they're more interested in getting re-elected than anything else."