Montana Viewpoint
Will publicly funded campaigns restore the political influence of everyday citizens?

January 23, 2006

There is an extraordinarily cynical adage that goes, “A good politician is one, who, when he’s bought, stays bought.”

I am here to tell you, as a guy who has raised campaign money for six elections, that it is absolutely the worst part of the campaign. But at least with Montana’s penny ante $135 maximum campaign contribution it’s hard to be bought. I mean, if you can compromise your ethics for a hundred and thirty-five bucks, you’ll do it for a cup of coffee.

I believe elected officials in Montana cast their votes based on the principles they brought into office with them, and not who contributes to their campaigns. The fact that their votes reflect the concerns of their contributors also reflects that it’s easier to get contributions from like-minded people as opposed to philosophical opposites.

But when you are talking about raising $10 million in large chunks of money for a U. S. Senate seat, it’s got to be hard not to go home from the dance with the one who “brung ya’.”

So what do we do about it, if anything? Well, there is a growing sentiment for publicly financed campaigns. There is also a sentiment against them, but they may be a way to remove the temptation to err.

In 1996 the citizens of Maine, which has about the same population as Montana,  passed the “Clean Elections” ballot initiative to allow publicly funded campaigns. To qualify for Clean Election funding, the candidate must first get a certain number of $5 contributions in “seed money.” The number depends on the office sought; for instance, for the Maine House of Representatives it’s 50, for the Governor, 2500.

The candidate then receives a grant from the state to cover the cost of the campaign—$4032 for the House, and $391,623 for Governor. The candidate must pledge to not raise more money nor to spend more on the campaign than the amount of the grant plus the seed money. If the opposing candidate chooses to not use public funding and raises more money than the publicly funded candidate, the publicly funded candidate gets a dollar for dollar match.

The first “Clean” election was in 2000, and now, after three Maine election cycles there has been a significant increase in both the number of candidates and primary contests than before 2000. In the 2004 campaign year 71% of primary candidates chose public financing. Today, about half of the members of the Maine Senate and one third of the Maine House won election in publicly financed campaigns.

Arizona has a similar law passed by initiative in 1998, and Connecticut passed a similar law late last year. A total of seven states allow Clean Election grants for all state level electoral contests. Other states allow for public financing of particular races such as Governors, judges, or Public Service Commissioners. All told, around 15 states have some form of public financing for campaigns.

The funding comes from taxpayer dollars, either as a tax check off, a surcharge, or from the state treasury. The cost of publicly funded elections is calculated to be in the range of $3-4 per individual taxpayer.

There is opposition to the concept. An article in the Arizona Business Journal of July 9, 2004 stated: “Supporters of Clean Elections argue it gets special interests—including business money and influence—out of politics and encourages civic involvement. These sentiments are leading some top business groups to work…to nix government funded campaigns.”

They are not universally popular with politicians, either. An article in the Boston Business Journal of November 22, 2002 by a Massachusetts democratic state senator, argues that public funding takes money from other valuable government programs.

I have mixed feelings about the issue. Although I detest asking people for campaign contributions, I have been good at it, or at least better than my opponents. Because it takes gumption and initiative to ask for money, is it fair to offer public financing to candidates who lack the Moxie to raise it on their own?

But if it is the big donations by powerful special interest groups at the federal level that we are worried about, public financing makes sense. Will it help? Certainly it will free congressional candidates from having to spend excessive amounts of time raising money and allow them to concentrate on their job.

More to the point is the question, “Will it hurt?” and there I think the answer is, “No.”

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620