Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Mayoral Madness

Give Air Time to Candidates

By David O. Dabney

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  Nixon may be dead, but his legacy lives on. Last week, District Judge William F. Lang issued an injunction on behalf of mayoral candidate Joe Diaz against the City of Albuquerque's enforcement of the spending limits for mayoral and city council races, declaring them unconstitutional. Lang cited the U.S. Supreme Court's 1976 ruling in Buckley vs. Valeo that struck down federal campaign spending limits as a restraint on free speech. Buckley vs. Valeo was one of the end results of various campaign finance reform laws that were pushed through after the full extent of Watergate became known.

Before the ruling, mayoral candidates were limited to spending no more than what the mayor's salary is, around $80,000, and city council races were limited to one tenth that. Now mayoral and council candidates are free to spend as they please since the chances of the city mounting an appeal and gaining a successful decision by the Oct. 7 election are remote.

Diaz rightly contends that the spending limits hurt the lesser-known candidates since they are unable to get their name and ideas in front of the public effectively. Candidates like Cargo and Baca, both of whom have held public office and run for mayor before, have strong name recognition and have used that as leverage to take the lead in the race.

But these spending limits are also in place to avoid any undue influence on the race by organizations that can give large amounts of money to any one candidate. To his credit, Diaz said that he will not accept money from political action committees, but where will the $100,000 he said he will spend come from? Probably from his own pockets. But what happens to those candidates that do not want to accept PAC money and are not well-heeled enough to finance their own campaigns?

The real reason all this money is needed is not to rent halls for rallies or for buying roadside signs; it's to buy time in the media, particularly radio and television, the two types of media most in demand by politicians. So if our candidates for office need this so badly and will either have to turn to their own money or PAC money to buy this air time, why don't we just give it to them instead?

After all, the Federal Communications Commission holds these airways in public trust for us, the people, granting licenses and collecting relatively small fees from the broadcasters that use them. Why shouldn't the broadcasters be convinced that they should give something more substantial back than public service announcements?

Each candidate, once officially qualified for office through the usual petition process, could be given a certain amount of "credits" that could be spent at any radio or television station they wished. All candidates would be given the same amount of credits. The FCC would raise the fees broadcasters pay for holding their licenses, and the credits that were spent at the station by the candidates would be deducted from what they paid for their license.

Not a perfect idea, but at least it's a start. Since the Supreme Court's ruling in Buckley vs. Valeo equated money with speech, nothing would really be stopping candidates from also spending their own money at the stations. But at least those candidates that did not accept PAC money and who were not rich enough to finance their own campaigns could then state their case.

--David O. Dabney

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