One More Look at Voter-Funded Elections

It came as no surprise this week when I was named to fill a vacancy on the Committee on Election Laws.

Well, it was slightly unusual, in that it gave me four major committees to serve on (Insurance, Long Term Debt and Banking being the other three).

But, not a surprise. I've been an opponent of the so-called "clean elections" issue since before you were asked to vote on it. You can find columns and op-ed pieces I've written even before Westfield was a test market.

I know the arguments for it. And against it. I will be a non-participant.

If you want to stop reading before you finish this column, the reasons that I oppose voter funded elections include my belief that proposed changes are expensive, don't address problems like soft money, are unnecessary in Massachusetts, allow for fraud and lack of accountability, will attract fringe candidates, will force you to spend your tax dollars funding candidates with views opposite of yours, and will waste tens of millions of your tax dollars that could well be spent on roads and schools and libraries and healthcare.

And that's just for starters.

Yes, I know, the voters approved it 2 to 1. And, I'm told, we should honor the voters' wishes. But the voters also approved capital punishment. And legislators voted against the death penalty last week.

Supporters of the measure also say that we have to make campaign finance laws in Massachusetts stronger. Well, we already have the toughest laws in the country.

For example, we cannot accept more than $500 from any one donor. We cannot accept any corporate donations. And, lobbyists can give only $200 and no gifts, not even a cup of coffee. This is, you will duly note, a far cry from the Federal laws which do indeed need to be changed.

We must report every dollar received, and every dollar spent, to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF), along with names and occupations of major contributors, on a regular basis. We also must report the value of all personal holdings-bank accounts, our homes and property, stocks and bonds-and our involvement in any nonpolitical businesses.

Back to the proposed "clean elections" legislation. "Voter-funded elections" is more accurate than "clean elections" because you will pay candidates to run for office. It's your tax dollars that could fund campaigns of people with beliefs opposite of yours.

The cost? $30-million? $45-million? More? No one knows.

A candidate who agrees to strict fundraising (no more than $100 per donation) and spending limits ($18,000 for a primary, $12,000 for a general election, for Representatives) will get public funds to run for office.

Campaign reform was meant, among other things, to limit the amount of time candidates have to spend fundraising by providing public tax money. This is flawed from the start because, for example, every one who wants to run for State Representative must first get $5 and a signed declaration from 200 donors saying they gave the money under OCPF guidelines and received nothing in return (so you can't have a spaghetti supper).

Now, that will take some time, asking and getting $5 from 200 people. But, once they raise that $1,000 they get $7,500 from the state. Before the primary race is over, they'll get another $7,500, for a total of $15,000.

If they make it through the primary and into the general election, they'll get another $9,000, possibly more (see below). There are 200 seats to fill. And an unlimited number of primary and general election candidates, just for the House.

Senatorial candidates (40 districts) as well as statewide candidates (Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General, Treasurer, State Secretary, Auditor, and Councilors will all get money, as well, ranging from $90,000 for a Senate race to $3-million for Gubernatorial races. Oh yes, indexed for possible 8 to 10 percent increases for inflation.

The Senators and Representatives we send to Washington are not included, by the way.

If a candidate decides not to abide by clean elections, and there is no requirement that they do so, they can spend as much as they like. The state, then, will match that money with tax dollars. (See the "possibly more" two paragraphs up.) Their opponent, who abides by the clean elections regulations, can get up to twice as much as they would have received above.

If, for example, I sponsor a Little League Team, buy tickets to the Westfield Womans Club Theater, send in my dues to the Chamber, pay my office's phone and fax bills, my opponent will get an equal amount of money, from the state, to run against me. Counting my campaign expenses, they could be eligible for as much as $60,000 in state money for a primary and general election.

There will be significant additional costs for OCPF to help deal with thousands of mandated, additional reports that would be filed, some as often as every two days, at the end of the general election race.

Noting that the proposed changes should help recruit new candidates and cause more turnover in office holders, supporters claim that those of us who want to scuttle it fear losing our incumbency. Not true. In Maine, which implemented campaign reform last year, the majority of incumbents were re-elected, just as they were in Massachusetts.

Turnover? We have it. Only 42 of the current 158 in our House (there are two vacancies) were there in 1990.

There are more arguments.

The threshold, the amount needed to get into the race ($1,000) is too low, hardly enough for serious candidates, and can lead to abuse and unaccountability.

Think about it. Raise $1,000 and get $60,000 in public funds in return. Even unopposed candidates would get $10,500 for the primary, another $7,500 for the general election.

Groups could place several candidates in a race just to attack an incumbent, while one takes the high road. We could have single-issue and fringe candidates. Disreputable candidates could take the money and spend it on expenses unrelated to the election.

It will not remove soft money, or outside money, from the process. Groups, such as unions, political parties, or private interest groups, could still spend money to campaign for, or against, a candidate. And the proposed reform does not affect ballot issues.

Supporters have said that we cannot change what voters approved. Yet, last week, a group of legislators who support "clean elections" proposed several amendments. They claimed the right to make changes, but denied opponents the right to do the same.

There are other arguments. One legislator has given the Election Laws Committee 11 pages of technical problems he has found with the bill.

If you want to know more about this expensive, misguided, public subsidy, go to www.state.ma.us/ocpf   

And, remember, it was special interest and out of state money that paid for this ballot question.

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