01 December 2005

Connecticut Backs Public Campaign Financing

Connecticut's Senate has passed a bill, likely to be approved, that would provide ample public funding to candidates for public office who raised significant numbers of small contributions on their own and agree to spending caps.

[T]he bill would spend approximately $17 million each year in public funds, tapping unclaimed property such as forgotten paychecks and bank accounts that now automatically flows into the state's general fund. Participating candidates must agree to campaign spending limits and must raise a certain amount, in small donations, to qualify for public funds for their campaigns. For example, a gubernatorial candidate opposed by a major party candidate without a primary would be limited to spending $3.25 million. Of that, the candidate would have to raise $250,000, with individual donations totaling no more than $100, to qualify. The state would then kick in $3 million.

In the last gubernatorial race in 2002, Rowland raised more than $5 million and his Democratic opponent, Bill Curry, collected about $1.5 million. Those who opt out of the public funding would not be able to accept any money from lobbyists and contractors. To make up for the revenue loss, they would be able to raise more from individuals, political action committees and the state parties. Gubernatorial candidates could receive $3,500 from an individual -- $1,000 more than they can accept at present.

Maine and Arizona have public financing systems created by ballot initiatives. Other state legislatures have created public financing for just a few positions, such as the governor and lieutenant governor in Vermont, top judges in North Carolina and a regulatory commission in New Mexico that oversees corporations. New Jersey recently passed a trial public financing program that affected two legislative seats this year and will apply to four in 2007.

The bill is a good one, although certainly not perfect. The requirement of significant small contributions prevents fly by night non-viable candidates from cashing in on public funds. The availablity of public funds dramatically reduces the extent to which elected officials must rely on special interests to finance their campaigns, and hence leaves them owing fewer people favors (even if those favors are, as usually alleged, access, rather than influence). And, state government is a natural place to start. Since the races involve fewer voters, and the races are covered by the media less intensely, very modest contributions (which only a very small percentage of people or businesses make at all) can have very big effects, but substituting those private dollars for public ones isn't very expensive.

About $30,000 can finance an entire moderately intensely contested state house campaign And, state legislatures do have signficant power, in the aggregate.

We already pay legislators salaries on the theory that it would create an appearance of impropriety for someone else to pay those salaries. Paying for expenses necessary to get the job is a natural extension of that theory.

Also, unlike some campaign finance legislation, this act does not bar private actors from spending money to support candidates or issues on their own. More speech, not caps on the amount of speech that the public can receive, is the answer to cleaner politics.

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