To Bill or Not to Bill: Who Should Pay for Presidential Visits?

Todd I. Selig

What is the cost of democracy? Last fall, communities across New Hampshire debated whether or not they should bill presidential candidates for the cost of public safety services during visits to their communities. What emerged from these discussions was another question: Did residents understand that under the current system, local governments underwrite the cost of campaign visits by candidates representing the two, major political parties?

Communities across the United States generally do not raise the issue of cost or reimbursement when a sitting president or a political candidate running for president comes to visit, whether that visit is an official state visit or a campaign stop. But it does happen. In New Hampshire, in the weeks leading up to Election Day, Stratham billed the Romney campaign, Durham requested reimbursement from the Obama campaign, and Windham, Rochester, and Portsmouth also struggled with the issue.

Communities in Congressman Paul Ryan's home state of Wisconsin, a battleground state like ours, have struggled with the cost of hosting presidential campaign visits. However, the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) indicates that attention has simply not been devoted to this issue to date on a national level.

A presidential campaign visit is an honor for residents. It can potentially raise the profile of a community within a region or a state. It can bring hundreds of staff and thousands of possible supporters to an area with a net positive economic impact. It can bring the office of the presidency, regardless of party affiliation, within reach of local community members. Prominent local, state, and federal officials are afforded a very public opportunity to see and be seen hosting or spending time with the president. Public safety officials are brought in on overtime, which is viewed positively by local rank and file public safety personnel. And despite being a candidate, the individual in office is still the president who legitimately needs special protection. As we well know, there have been numerous attempted and successful assassination attempts on the president in United States history. Local support of public safety services related to hosting the cost of a presidential visit, whether an official visit or a campaign event, in these terms is perhaps the cost of democracy in America.

However, not all regions experience an economic boon when the president as candidate comes to visit. Roadways are closed. Parking is restricted. Local business is interrupted. Residents are inconvenienced. Municipal resources must be redirected, and often significant unanticipated local tax dollars are expended on a purely partisan political event, the full cost of which is almost certainly unknown by the general public within the host community, not to mention the neighboring communities that provide public safety support. This may mean that worthy projects that survived the scrutiny of an annual budget process in a community are forgone to offset unanticipated public safety overages associated with a presidential campaign visit. In this light, local communities and counties across the United States could legitimately be viewed as subsidizing the cost of professionally managed multimillion dollar political campaigns that desire to reserve their resources for purely partisan purposes.

An incumbent president's campaign is expected to reimburse the government the cost of a first class commercial airline ticket for each person riding Air Force One to or from a political event. The question is not whether a given community should bill or not, but rather whether the public understands the present system of locally underwriting presidential campaign visits and whether there is an opportunity to alter this practice, given that both political parties benefit from it, often at the expense of local budgets and local taxpayers.

Todd I. Selig, Durham Town Administrator since 2001, is a native of Laconia. Before assuming his position in Durham, he served in the municipal and school sectors in Raymond, Laconia, New Boston, and Hopkinton. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Durham.