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D.C. campaign finance proposals await more public comment

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The D.C. Council has slowed consideration of new restrictions on campaign funding, but members expect a comprehensive bill that could include public financing to come up this year.

Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), the new chairman of the Government Operations Committee, said he wants to gather public comment in the spring before the council considers proposals.

Some of the particulars, including prohibiting contributions from city contractors and other corporate donations, have been on the council agenda for nearly two years. The measures were proposed after allegations that Mayor Vincent C. Gray benefited from an illegal “shadow campaign” in 2010 and that city contractor Jeffrey E. Thompson gave tens of thousands of dollars to council candidates through straw donations.

But the council did not act on the legislation last year, despite a push from Gray (D) and activists. McDuffie said it will be late spring or early summer before his committee debates legislation, but this week he got behind a proposal to tax large city contractors as a way to pay for public financing of campaigns.

“We want to make sure we have something that is viable, practical and workable,” said McDuffie, a former federal prosecutor and Gray administration official. “It’s one thing to say you have passed a bill, and it’s another thing to really address some of the concerns that exist [in a way] that not only diagnoses the problems but makes sure the solutions can be achieved.”

McDuffie, who was elected less than a year ago after campaigning on government reform, said he hopes overhauling campaign finance will give him an opportunity to put his mark on city government. Still, some city leaders and activists fear that his decision to delay legislation will indefinitely postpone reforms. They said that unless new rules are adopted soon, restrictions won’t be in place for the city’s 2014 elections.

“I think it should be done now,” Gray said an interview Thursday. “It should have been done last session.”

Civic activist Dorothy Brizill, co-author of the D.C. Watch blog, asked why hearings are needed on issues that were scrutinized by the same committee last year.

“The same people who testified on the subject matter are going to have trek out to new hearings” Brizill said. “McDuffie is the one with the learning curve.”

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said McDuffie realizes that it will be a struggle to write a bill that can win majority support on the council.

“I seriously doubt that the council will enact meaningful campaign finance reform,” said Wells, who sponsored a bill with council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) to ban corporate contributions to city campaigns. “I don’t see the majority of the council doing anything significant.”

In an interview this week, the council chairman, Phil Mendelson (D), said he supports reform efforts but wants to move carefully because campaign finance is “a very complicated area.”

“It doesn’t do the issue justice to rush it through, to make mistakes or overlook things,” Mendelson said. “There will be an airing of all the issues, and a final product that, if it omits anything, it omits things intentionally rather than, ‘Oops, now we have to consider it further’.”

D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan drafted a proposal for the Gray administration last year that would ban city contractors from making donations to political campaign, prohibit lobbyists from bundling donations and tighten disclosure rules.

But Mendelson said he worries that elements of the proposal would be too burdensome and could benefit incumbents. “One thing people don’t think about with campaign finance is, the more restrictions we place, the easier we make it for incumbents,” Mendelson said. He also remarked that “campaigns would have to pay for an accountant, which an incumbent is more likely able to afford.”

Mendelson said he’s open to a proposal by council member David Grosso (I-At Large) and McDuffie to provide partial public financing of some campaigns. Under the plan, city government would give qualifying candidates $4 for every $100 they raise. The system, which has an opt-out provision, would be paid for through a new 1 percent tax on city contracts valued at $1 million or more.

Still, McDuffie said he plans to make public financing part of the discussion.“There should be a public debate,” McDuffie said.

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