Wednesday, August 07, 2002

City Hall

Why pay for political ads?

        The debate over campaign finance reform is becoming an annual, back-and-forth contest in Cincinnati.

        First, City Council imposed spending limits. They were ruled unconstitutional in 1998.

        Contribution limits were similarly passed and repealed.

        Now, there's an effort to repeal part of last year's Issue 6, the ballot issue that provides, in part, for publicly subsidized political campaigns for mayor and City Council.

        Opponents are circulating petitions to get voters to reconsider, but Republicans Chris Monzel and Pat DeWine tried Tuesday to short-circuit that process and get City Council to put it on the ballot.

        They failed. Democrats such as David Pepper and David Crowley — with Charterite Jim Tarbell — said it's not right for City Council to second-guess the will of voters, who approved Issue 6

        But as City Council debates how to pay for the estimated $2 million cost of subsidizing council campaigns, Councilman John Cranley has another idea: Let broadcasters pay for it.

        “The local television and radio stations should be supporting democracy rather than profiteering from democracy,” he said Tuesday, as he in troduced a resolution calling for television stations to give free airtime to candidates for City Council.

        His proposal coincided with the Cincinnati visit of Paul Taylor, the president of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a Washington-based group that's pushing for free air time for federal candidates.

        Mr. Taylor spoke to a lunch-time audience of about 50 people downtown, explaining ho w political advertising on television has increased 400 percent since 1980, while candidates' sound bites on television newscasts have shrunk to microscopic size.

        The free air time proposal, now being championed by U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would require broadcasters to devote at least two hours a week (one of them in prime time) to candidates for office during the campaign season. It w ould also impose a tax on broadcasters to support free airtime “vouchers” for federal candidates.

        Mr. Cranley wants to bring that concept down to the city level.

        One problem: Unlike Congress, which has authority to regulate the publicly owned airwaves, City Council has no leverage to require broadcasters to do anything.

        But there is hope.

        WCPO-TV general manager Bill Fee says Channel 9 will launch its “Democracy 2002” initiative this fall, giving candidates for federal, state and local office five minutes at the end of the 6 p.m. newscast to explain their positions. Other stations owned by the Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co. will do likewise.

        There's bad news for City Council candidates, though. WCPO doesn't plan to include them in the 2003 election.

        “We're going to have about 30 days to do this, and there are about 25 candidates for City Council alone,” Mr. Fee said. “With the number of candidates that historically run for council, I don't see how we can do it in this format.”


        City Hall reporter Gregory Korte can be reached at 768-8391 or Greg



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