In March MLA Jeff Johnson (Athabasca-Redwater) told me about a Private Member’s Bill he was moving at the legislature concerning tightening municipal campaign finance rules. I took a look at the bill not long after we spoke and concluded that it was sound in most respects but figured that as a private member’s bill it would not make it that far.
I kept track of it, however, and all of a sudden it had two readings at the legislature and was going to committee of the whole for the next-to-last stage of approval. Significantly, it was garnering approval from all three parties at the legislature. So I gave what we call ‘notice of motion’ at the council meeting two weeks ago, indicating that I wanted to move the following motion at council for debate this week:
That the mayor write to all members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta indicating Council’s support for Bill 203 “Local Authorities Election (Finance and Contribution Disclosure) Amendment Act, 2009 (Johnson)” and requesting that the legislature also enact changes that would enable the tax deductibility of donations to municipal campaigns by private individuals.
I circulated a brief on the bill for my colleagues later that same week, which I’ve posted here as background. I had also discussed the bill with a number of my colleagues, including the mayor, prior to giving the notice of motion, which made their shock and surprise at the bill during our debate on it this week all the more surprising to me (see “Mandel Slams Election Bylaw” from yesterday’s Journal).
Turns out it passed third and final reading at the legislature on Monday, so it’s a done deal [edit for clarity at 12:37pm same day: the bill is through the legislature but awaits formal proclamation]. My motion was designed to shift the debate to leveling the playing field by allowing tax deductability. This is not only fair in the most basic sense of the word, but it levels the playing field between business and citizens, since a campaign contribution from a business is a business expense, and therefore a before-tax expense. For a private individual, it’s an after-tax dollar expense, and that disadvantages the citizen relatively speaking, which is wrong in the most basic sense of the word. But now we’re back to fighting about a law that’s passed, which misses the point.
Most of what the bill calls for is already required through the City of Edmonton’s Disclosure Bylaw:
- Surpluses from a campaign can be carried forward, but must be spent on a subsequent municipal campaign (not pocketed, as is routinely done in Calgary).
- Any surpluses remaining when a candidate decides not to run must be surrendered to the municipality or else to a charity of the candidate’s choice.
- The bill requires disclosure of the names of donors who give more than $100, while our current bylaw requires disclosing identity of donors who give more than $300. This will reduce the practice of related numbered companies donating $299 multiple times.
Bill 203 also sets out slightly more rigid requirements in terms of bookkeeping, and enacts provisions for audit of those books under certain circumstances; I regard both of these as improvements over our rules.
The biggest rule change is a hard contribution limit of $5,000 per entity, which some of my colleagues recoiled against, but I support. Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception of impropriety when businesses or labour make huge contributions to a given candidate. (There is an interesting question about how this applies to unions vs. related companies: is the separate land wing of BigDeveloperX a different entity from the construction wing of BigDeveloperX, and so could each give $5,000 since they are separately incorporated? Labour donations have been limited to $5,000 per candidate per union, not per local, so two CUPE unions couldn’t each contribute unless the total was $5,000 or less.)
Naheed Nenshi from the Better Calgary Campaign wrote a good piece in the Calgary Herald about this all last week, noting a couple of things it doesn’t do: it doesn’t require ‘just-in-time’ disclosure, where campaign donations are disclosed as they are received, or within a short deadline such as a week; it doesn’t establish total spending caps for campaigns (in Ontario and Manitoba there are limits to spending per eligible voter). For the record, I would support both of these reasonable rules.
I think the bill is a good step forward in principle. Concern that municipalities were not directly consulted is valid, but one hopes municipal leaders will be consulted prior to the proclamation of the bill and the implementation of associated regulations.
It was needed because there was no consensus on these kinds of requirements, particularly from Calgary, so in this case I think the province had to step in. Some of my colleagues took affront to the very notion of the the province stepping in to regulate the affairs of municipal government. Ideally this would not be necessary, but it was in Calgary and I don’t believe there was appetite on Edmonton council to consider contribution limits, so I’m going to chalk this up to good leadership from the province.
I took it all as a compliment since so much of the nuts and bolts of it is modeled after the city’s current practice.
In the end, Council instead voted to instruct the mayor to express council’s displeasure at not being consulted. I wasn’t happy with the turn the debate took, but I missed the tail end of it as I ran home to be with my wife and two-day-old. Hopefully we’ll get another crack at it at council.
I may not be able to convince enough of my colleagues that municipal campaign finance reform is important, but the province gets it and I think the public will too.