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SF Mayoral Candidates Can Spend More

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Ethics Commission raises spending limit after financial support for Lee's campaign exceeded $1.7 million

For the third time in the past eight days, San Francisco's Ethics Commission has raised the limit on the amount of money mayoral candidates and the independent political groups that support them can spend this election cycle.

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The cap is now $1,775,000, and it's likely to go even higher before Election Day.

“I would imagine that it’s going to go up again a couple of times based on the past two weeks," said John St. Croix, Executive Director of the Ethics Commission.

The commission first raised the spending limit on Oct. 19. Before then, it was $1,475,000.

San Francisco's campaign finance law requires the commission to raise the spending ceiling anytime a candidate who does not receive public financing exceeds the existing limit. Interim Mayor Ed Lee chose not to receive public financing for his campaign. As of Thursday morning, the amount of money in his campaign war chest plus the amount of money independent groups spent on his campaign totaled $1,782,209, according to a statement from the commission.

That forced another $100,000 increase in the spending limit. 

If candidates accept up to $900,000 in public funds, they have to abide by the $1,475,000 spending limit.

Of the nine mayoral candidates who have received public funds, the commission awarded Dennis Herrera and Bevan Dufty more than $600,000 each. With the increase in the spending limit, the two could ask the commission to award them even more than $900,000 before Nov. 8, Election Day.

Ed Lee's campaign said it is not responsible for any spending limit increases.

“We’re not actually responsible for breaking the cap even yet,” said Lee campaign spokesman Tony Winnicker.

Lee's official campaign committee has raised about $1.2 million and independent expenditure committees spent nearly $600,000, according to the Ethics Commission’s most recent tally.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon is investigating allegations that workers for one of those committees, SF Neighbor Alliance for Ed Lee for Mayor 2011, violated election law by helping elderly Chinatown voters fill out their ballots.

The Alliance has spent more than $135,000 on Lee's behalf since the end of September, according to campaign finance filings. But after the allegations surfaced last week, Lee denounced the group, saying, "they have nothing to do with the campaign."

His campaign spokesperson said that spending by the Alliance is one of the reasons the ceiling had to be raised.

“Ironically, that is part of what pushed spending over the cap,” Winnicker said.

When asked why Lee has not voluntarily agreed to a cap, Winnicker reiterated that Lee had not accepted public funds and is not legally obligated to limit his spending. He added that other candidates have used tax dollars to air negative ads against Lee.

Public financing is intended to reduce the influence of large donors on political races and eliminate barriers to entry for those who don’t have access to large amounts of money. 

But critics say San Francisco's campaign finance law conflicts with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. 

In June, the high court ruled that Arizona's law on public financing, which is similar to San Francisco's, “imposes a substantial burden on privately financed candidates and independent expenditure groups,” because it allows publicly financed candidates to receive additional taxpayer dollars once a spending cap is broken.

In other words, the court decided that if one candidate earns more money independently, then others shouldn’t automatically get more money to level the playing field.

Corey Cook, a professor of political science at the University of San Francisco, said lifting the ceiling for campaign spending creates uncertainty.

"Public financing as implemented in San Francisco is highly effective in ensuring that candidates have an opportunity to have their voices heard, but it doesn't ensure that these voices won't be shouted down," he said. 

St. Croix said no candidate has requested additional taxpayer dollars, and he doesn’t know what he’ll say if they do. 

“If I’m strictly following the current law, I would have to give it to them,” St. Croix said. “I’ve decided not to answer that question until I absolutely have to.”

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