Public campaign financing may be beyond Philadelphia's means

Council members at a table

Philadelphia Council members listen to officials address the idea of public funding for city candidates. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

Philadelphia can’t afford to use public money for financing political campaigns, according to a city administrator.

But public funding of candidates willing to live within spending caps would expand the number of people running for public office in Philadelphia, contended Councilman Derek Green.

“This is the beginning of a conversation regarding public finance of local elections,” he said

But finance director Rob Dubow said the cost — if it covered mayoral and City Council candidates — could exceed $6 million for the 2020 election cycle. That’s simply not feasible, he said.

“While the cost of future elections could be spread more evenly over the course of a four-year election cycle, diversion of revenues into the special purpose fund — along with its mandatory appropriations to the public finance system — could directly reduce council and the administration’s ability to make new investments,” Dubow said.

Green said the cost would amount to 0.01 percent of the city budget — and should be possible.

At a hearing on the proposal, Dubow talked about the city’s financial worries over the next five years, compounded by new union contracts.

“The city will face significant structural financial challenges over the course of the upcoming five-year plan. They include low reserves, high fixed costs, and a relatively weak tax base.”

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has already taken steps to address those concerns.

“We’ve asked departments to reduce their spending plans by 2 percent in the current fiscal year,” Dubow said. “We will likely face even more difficult funding decisions in next year’s budget and the upcoming five-year plan.”

Those calculations do not include the city pension plan’s shortfall, Dubow said. Those accounts only contain half of what’s needed to honor pension obligations.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.