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Public financing of state elections: Is this an idea whose time has come?

December 10, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Telemarketers. Except for their mothers, spouses and significant others, does anybody really love them?

And yet when the Maryland General Assembly tried to enact its own version of the "Do Not Call List" law, according to two civic activiststhe bill died in the Senate Finance Committee on a 5-to-5 vote, after lots of opposition from every industry that solicits business by phone.

That's only one example of the power of special interests to thwart the will of the people, according to Sean Dobson, deputy director of Progressive Maryland and James Browning, director of Common Cause Maryland.

Both were in Hagerstown Monday to seek support for what they feel is the cure for what ails Maryland politics - the public financing of campaigns.

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Both acknowledge that it won't be easy to pass during the current fiscal downturn, but note that it won't be implemented until the 2010 election cycle.

Perhaps more important, public financing's chief opponent, Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, is facing a federal probe of a campaign fund he oversees. No matter how much he'd like to, they said, killing the bill wouldn't be a good move right now.

Public financing, at work now in Maine and Arizona, would have another benefit besides reducing the influence of big money on campaigns, they said.

It would also allow people who couldn't raise $100,000 by themselves to enter a state senate race. Under the bill, those who raised at least 280 donations of at least $5 from their district would be eligible for public funds of $100,000 for a state senate race and $80,000 for a delegate contest.

If there were no opposition, candidates would get some money, but not the full amount, they said.

It's important to run a campaign even if there is no opponent, because "this is your one chance to get your message out and meet the voters," Browning said.

As Browning and Dobson envision it, the system would cost about $15 million per election cycle, or about $4 million per year.

"That's about 80 cents per Marylander per year," Dobson said.

Asked where that cash would come from, Dobson said that in Maine, the system runs mostly on general revenues. In Arizona, he said, 60 percent of the tab is paid with a surcharge on criminal and civil court cases and a tax check-off similar to the one that's now on the federal tax return.

The benefits to citizens in those states are real, Browning said, starting with an influx of new candidates. In Maine, after public financing was enacted, the state legislature was able to cap prescription drug costs.

"That was possible only after they did public financing, because it really broke the grip of the pharmaceutical industry," Browning said.

Both men acknowledged that there are a few wrinkles that may have to be ironed out. If one opponent in a two-person race decides against public financing, the bill provides for additional funds, which means in my view that well-funded incumbents may be doing battle with publicly funded challengers instead of everyone running under the public system.

Asked what would prevent someone who wanted to run from giving 280 people $5 bills and envelopes addressed to the campaign, both said that under the bill, such an act would be fraud.

The bill also sets up an Elections Financing Commission that they said would work closely with the state's Election Board to oversee compliance with the new law. Opponents will point to this as another bureaucracy sure to grow in time.

But the biggest challenge facing sponsors of this bill is that it would use some general revenue. Both men note that government decisions made because of special-interest money waste far more than this bill will cost. But that will be a hard sell to voters, who may only perceive that their money is going to politicians they may not support.

The same objection is being raised to a similar bill being considered for the next session of the West Virginia Legislature.

The Associated Press reported that Del. Rusty Webb, R-Kanawha, unsuccessfully tried to remove "legislative appropriations" as a funding source. Another called it an "unfunded mandate."

I have some reservations, but want to hear more. The cost of elections is growing so quickly that candidates who aren't wealthy or well-connected may be priced out of running. And it's no guarantee of turnover - in Maine and Arizona, incumbents still win most of the time. Whether those incumbents will willingly embrace a bill that could generate more opponents remains to be seen.

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