Report recommendations on B.C. municipal campaign spending reforms disappoint: High expense limits, no donor caps, no bans on corporate or union donations

Special Committee on Local Election Spending Limits
The recommended changes to local election campaign spending were released in a report by a special parliamentary committee of the B.C. provincial government on Friday, June 26, 2015.

Bottom line: The recommendations in this report are a significant failure for democracy at the municipal level in British Columbia. They could further entrench “regulatory capture” of our municipal governments. But if enough members of the public get active on these issues, perhaps significant improvements are still possible before 2018.

final report spending limitsYears in the making, the recommendations are an epic failure for democracy in large municipalities in British Columbia. In short, if they end up being officially adopted by the provincial government, the status quo will remain unchanged. There would be no limits placed on donations. The proposed rules would not limit corporate or union donations. The main area of study by committee was the idea of introducing “spending limits” (as opposed to donations) for elections.

In the case of Vancouver, the upper spending limits would be:

  • $2.9 million (for a full slate of candidates)
  • $2.38 million (for a slate of 22 candidates, the number for Vision Vancouver in 2014)
  • $2.59 million (for 25 candidates, in an optimized slate with 8 Councillor candidates)

The totals are derived by adding together the individual limits per candidate. The recommendations by the committee are at odds with their stated goals for introducing expense limits:

Expense limits are based on the value of having a diversity of candidates running on a “level playing field” with an equitable opportunity to inform the electorate about themselves and their positions on election issues. Expense limits restrict the ability of candidates and their third party advertisers with significant resources to “drown out” the voices of other candidates with fewer resources. Election expense limits improve the quality of the democratic process by increasing voters’ opportunity to gain knowledge about the full range of candidates, thereby strengthening the ability of voters to make fully informed decisions at the ballot box come election day. (page 4)

The report also speaks of the need for fairness in setting spending limits:

In this report, the Committee has applied the principles of fairness, neutrality, transparency and accountability in its consideration of what levels of spending by candidates and third party advertisers should be permitted. (page 5)

Yet in the same section, the committee contradicts its stated goals:

  • The principle of neutrality means that expense limits should have a neutral effect on whether candidates choose to run as part of an elector organization or not. That is, expense limits should not create an incentive or disincentive to run with an elector organization or to run independently. Therefore, elector organizations will not have a separate limit, in addition to the limit that individual candidates have. Their expense limit is solely derived from the expense limits of the candidates they endorse. (page 5)

Independent candidates have not been elected to Vancouver City Council since 1988. Running under the banner of an Elector Organization is, in practical terms, a prerequisite for candidates to be elected in Vancouver. The proposed formula for independent candidates in Vancouver would allow the following spending limits:

  • $202,275 for a Mayoral Candidate
  • $103,580 for a City Councillor or Park Board Commissioner
  • $104,205 for a School Board Trustee (incl. UBC lands)

The new rules would not remove big money from civic politics. According to official disclosure statements, Vision Vancouver spent over $3.4 million in 2014 (and that doesn’t include money spent in non-election years). Under the new proposed regulations their spending could still be in the $2.38 million to $2.9 million range in the 2018 election.

During the public consultation phase, the Vancouver Greens proposed spending limits in the range of 25 to 50 cents per registered voter per Elector Organization. “Basically, we’re looking at campaigns that would be not in the $2 million to $3 million range but the $100,000-to-$200,000 range,” they stated.

The proposed rules might actually encourage the formation of Elector Organizations in municipalities such as the City of North Vancouver and also in School Districts across British Columbia. This could spread the undemocratic ills of Vancouver to those municipalities by creating receptacles (political parties) as magnets for large corporate and union donations.

Despite the negatives, there may be a few positive parts in the proposed rules. Third party advertisers would be allowed to spend 5% of the limit of a Mayoral candidate. The rules might work well in elections for areas with populations of less than 10,000 residents; a limit of $10,000 would be put in place for mayoral candidates and $5,000 for other candidates. The formula proposed by the committee, however, works poorly for large cities such as Vancouver and Surrey.

The Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits unanimously endorsed the report recommendations. Consider its composition. Five of the eight MLAs on the committee are from the Lower Mainland: Jenny Kwan & Sam Sullivan (Vancouver), Marvin Hunt (Surrey), Linda Reimer & Selina Robinson (Coquitlam). Thus, they know from close up how large corporate and union donations warp municipal elections. The committee’s report did not look at allowing the issuance of income tax receipts, requiring annual reporting of donations or expenses between elections, or limiting donors to persons from B.C. The committee did consider the topic of “Elector Organization advantage” (flip side: disadvantage of independent candidates), but failed to recommend lower limits for Elector Organizations.

Has the committee allowed Vision Vancouver, the NPA and Surrey First set the agenda for large municipalities in the Lower Mainland? Here’s a quote from the report:

Surrey First Electors Society cautioned against setting expense limits too low because modern-day elections are expensive affairs that provide an opportunity to communicate important ideas to the public and they should not be handicapped to the lowest common denominator. (page 18)

Here’s the final spending limit formula recommended by the committee:

spending limits

The spending limits would be indexed for inflation. The limits are based on a per capita formula (and not per registered voter). If the 2016 census population for Vancouver increases to 630,084 residents at the current rate of growth, then the spending limit for an Elector Organization running a full slate will exceed $3 million in 2018.

The report did not show a calculation of the spending limits for elector organizations or candidates in Vancouver. An example for Surrey was shown, for candidates only (spending limits for Mayor: $188,748 and Council: $96,365). The Surrey First party swept Council in 2014: Surrey First councillors take all the seats, roughly 50 per cent of the votes (The Now, Amy Reid, November 17, 2014). Why is the report ignoring the “elephant in the room”? Why is meaningful finance reform not recommended for large cities in B.C.? The report fails to deliver on one of its stated goals:

Limiting the amount of money that candidates, elector organizations, and third party advertisers can spend on election expenses during a campaign is often a key element in campaign finance rules. (page 4)

In conclusion, the recommendations in this report are a significant failure for democracy at the municipal level in British Columbia. But if enough members of the public get active on these issues, improvements may still be possible. The next provincial general election will be held on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. The next municipal elections will be October 20, 2018. Will real leaders step up to the challenge of really reforming municipal election campaign finance?

References

Finance Reform: Green Party on Local Elections Expense Limits (CityHallWatch, June 25, 2015)

BC’s Unfair Elections Act: Top 10 list of what is wrong with Bill 20. (No spending limits, no ban on corporate/union donations, but longer terms for municipal politicians, and more) (CityHallWatch, March 28, 2014)

Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits (website)

Final Report: Report of the Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits (June 26, 2015)

Media release: Special Committee recommends local elections expense limit amounts (June 26, 2016)
Campaign Finance Reform Public Hearing

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