What really changes if Philly taxpayers finance campaigns?

Philadelphia City Council-01022017-0013
Derek Green, an at-large member of .Philadelphia City Council, has proposed public financing for political campaigns for local elected offices.

The most recent beneficiary of big money in Philadelphia politics says he would have been happy to run in a system where the public funded his campaign.

Larry Krasner, speaking at a debate last week, said he had no control over the nearly $1.7 million invested by New York billionaire George Soros in a Super PAC created to support Krasner in the May 17 Democratic primary election for district attorney.

Not that he minded Soros’ largess. Krasner, who won the primary and is now the front-runner to be the next district attorney, said he was “frankly pleased” when the money hit town.

Krasner spoke on the same day City Council’s Committee on Law and Government held a public hearing on a package of bills to establish a system for local political campaigns to be funded by public tax dollars.

That legislation is a long way from passage.

City Councilman Derek Green, the prime sponsor, still has to convince a majority of colleagues to support it. Then he has to get past concerns from Mayor Kenney about the cost. If he manages all that, Philadelphia’s voters would still have to vote to support the proposal as a change to the City Charter.

That last hurdle is especially high — asking Philly voters to volunteer to pay for political campaigns.

Green’s idea has plenty of merit, as noted by many of the people who testified at the hearing.

The legislation would offer politicians this deal — if they limit their fund-raising and spending to certain amounts, the city will match what they raise, 5-1, up to a capped amount.

The idea is to motivate politicians to spend more time talking to voters who make small donations than courting special interests who write huge checks.

But this proposal can do nothing about the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said independent expenditure political action committees — a.k.a. Super PACs — can raise and spend unlimited amounts to influence elections, ignoring campaign finance limits as long as they don’t coordinate those efforts with a candidate.

Money isn’t everything. Krasner noted that one of the seven Democrats in his primary, Michael Untermeyer, sunk $1.3 million of his own money into his own campaign. He finished fifth, with 8 percent of the vote.

Four Super PACs spent more in the 2015 Democratic primary election for mayor in Philadelphia than the six candidates, combined. One spent $7.5 million to back state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams. Three others spent nearly $4 million to back Kenney, who won the primary and went on to become mayor.

If Green’s legislation becomes law, candidates using public financing could still be backed by a Super PAC. And participating candidates would have their spending limits lifted if a Super PAC spent more than the cap to defeat them and/or to support an opponent.

So politicians could cast themselves as playing within one set of rules set up to give more influence to the voters they hope to represent while also benefitting from a second set of rules for the special interests trying to influence their election.

That sounds like a hands-off outsourcing of big-money fund-raising to Super PACs while the rest of us pick up a chunk of the bill for political campaigns. Which prompts the questions: Who emerges with more influence in that equation? And what does that really change?