'Clean elections' might wash away money's imprint
AUSTIN — When Maine began its groundbreaking taxpayer-funded campaign system, candidate Chandler Woodcock noticed something intriguing about lobbyists' behavior.
"As soon as I said, 'I'm a clean election candidate,' they headed for the hors d'oeuvres," Woodcock said, recalling a GOP fundraiser he attended as a brand-new publicly funded contender in 2000. "I never saw anything like it before. It's like, 'Nice to see ya, good luck in your race. ... I'll just take one of these mushrooms, and I'm out of here.'"
Full public financing of campaigns, approved in three states for legislative and statewide races, is considered by many watchdogs to be the best way to end the campaign money hunt that empowers lobbyists as it drives candidates.
"Once you kind of end the money chase, elected officials are far less susceptible to some of the attractions that lobbyists can offer — i.e. travel, food, gifts, campaign contributions," said Mary Boyle with Common Cause. "Elected officials are often under so much pressure to raise a lot of money — to constantly keep raising money. That's why they have these close ties with lobbyists. Lobbyists help them raise money."
Critics say public funding isn't the best use of state money and can't curb independent expenditures or big spending on self-funded campaigns, which the U.S. Supreme Court has found to be constitutionally protected as free speech.
"It's just such a feel-good measure," said Maine campaign consultant Roy Lenardson, who works only for candidates who don't take taxpayer funding. "Just ask yourself: Do people believe lobbyists have stopped giving money to campaigns? It's that simple. Of course, the answer is no."
In Texas, no law even attempts to stop the flow.
Policymakers have shied away from contribution limits, focusing instead on disclosure. Using public records, the San Antonio Express-News identified the role that big-money special interests play in shaping policies that affect Texas businesses, consumers and children in need of health care.
While no one predicts taxpayer-funded campaigns will become Texas law anytime soon, some say it's time to start the discussion in the state known as the "Wild West" of campaign finance.
More pin their hopes on less sweeping — but big-for-Texas — proposals such as campaign contribution limits that could pave the way for even stronger reforms down the road.
"It is the most realistic way to clean up the process," state Sen. Rodney Ellis said of public financing, an idea he plans to include along with contribution limits in a reform proposal. "I think there will be a decisive mood swing based on what happened this election and concerns that have been raised around the country."
With a mood ripened by Washington scandals, Texas indictments and breathtaking highs in political contributions this year, there's plenty of room for change.
A state of no limits
Texas is by far the largest of 13 states allowing an unlimited amount of contributions from individuals to candidates, and of 14 allowing unlimited political action committee contributions to candidates. It's one of 23 with no prohibition against legislators lobbying state government after they leave office.
Along with public financing, reform advocates including Texans for Public Justice, Public Citizen and Common Cause support changes including contribution caps and "revolving door" limits on former lawmakers lobbying the Legislature.
Other potential reform targets include a Texas Ethics Commission that some say is good on disclosure but too constrained on enforcement, since it's appointed and funded by officeholders it oversees. Texas' disclosure laws — touted by top GOP leaders who say they allow voters to decide on the appropriateness of contributions — also contain gaps.
Some who focus on strengthening disclosure say public financing and campaign contribution limits could shift — but not stop — such largesse as the millions poured into several House races by San Antonio businessman James Leininger.
"None of that would have kept James Leininger from putting $2.5 million into five races. All he has to do is deny doing it in concert with the candidate," said former acting Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff. "Sometimes I think that's even more dangerous ... because the candidate can have total deniability and yet you get some of the worst types of extremism funded by people who are not answerable or accountable to anybody."
On the immediate prospects for Texas public financing, foes and supporters agree.
"It's not a political option in Texas, period," said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice. "We won't raise taxes to feed the hungry or heal the sick. I don't think the political climate in Texas is right for public financing."
But Sen. Ellis — a Houston Democrat who said he's not approaching the issue as a "Mr. Goody Two Shoes" because he himself has a big campaign war chest as allowed under current law — said, "It's time to have the discussion."
Around the country, the discussion has resulted in so-called "clean election" laws in Maine, Arizona and most recently Connecticut, with a measure that will apply starting with 2008 legislative elections.
The idea is similar to the program providing public funds for presidential campaigns through an income tax check-off.
The National Conference of State Legislatures identifies full public financing of campaigns as the newest idea in campaign finance reform.
Besides the three states that have approved full financing for statewide and legislative races, North Carolina has it for judicial races, Vermont for statewide offices and New Mexico for an elected regulatory commission, the reform advocacy group Public Campaign says.
Close to half the states give some state grants to candidates or political parties for their campaigns, but the programs often are small, said NCSL. The conference noted that in all cases, participating in public financing is optional.
Public-financing supporters say it's a way to at least try to level the playing field, restrict direct influence by the lobbyists who funnel campaign contributions to candidates and give access to the system to people who might otherwise not have the ability to run.
Opponents say the system drains taxpayer money from necessities, spends it on candidates with whom the taxpayers may not agree and fails to take money out of politics.
Candidates generally qualify for public funding by collecting a set amount of small donations, agreeing not to raise other private funds and abiding by spending restrictions.
Publicly funded candidates get additional matching funds for at least a portion of the extra dollars spent on behalf of their foes — a way to counter the advantages of traditional or independent spending.
In Arizona, advocates say the law has opened the door to races for more minorities and women. In more homogenous Maine, supporters say the diversity comes mostly in candidates' backgrounds, but that more women than men use the clean election law.
In both states, the system is funded partly by taxpayer check-offs on state income taxes. Maine also appropriates money from its general fund, while Arizona funds much of its clean campaigns through an extra charge on fines.
A ballpark estimate of what it costs to run a clean campaign system can be calculated by taking $5 per voting-age adult or one-tenth of 1 percent of the state budget, said Nick Nyhart, executive director of the reform group Public Campaign.
In Texas, that would work out to somewhere between $69.5 million and $83.2 million a year. The number would be doubled for a two-year election cycle. Maine and Arizona each have spent less than the $5 per adult.
Ellis still was crafting his legislation, and his office didn't have a Texas cost estimate.
In 2002, a report by Texans for Public Justice found, statewide and legislative candidates in Texas raised $195 million for the two-year election cycle — but 35 percent of the total came from self-financing of $56.7 million by Democrat Tony Sanchez in his unsuccessful race for governor and $11.3 million by now-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican. The ballpark estimate for public financing adds up pretty well, Nyhart said.
The cost of a clean-money measure being considered in California has been estimated at $100 million to $150 million a year, or $3 to $5 a person. .
Public-spending advocates say the cost of a privately funded campaign system is higher in the long run because it can at least appear to be reflected in policy decisions.
"For people who say 'I don't want my tax dollars being used to fund politicians,' what they don't realize is because we have no limits, and don't have public financing, and have a system in which people connected to the insurance industry give unlimited sums of money — then we have legislation that really does not do anything to help a homeowner with the cost of insurance," said Suzy Woodford of Common Cause Texas.
"You pay for it," Woodford said . "And you pay more."
Money's not the point
Chandler Woodcock — a Maine senator who's making a run for governor — said the clean election law has allowed him to focus on policy.
He said he has a "typical senatorial relationship" with lobbyists — "other than there's no influence involved" based on contributions.
On the campaign trail, public money allows him to spend time talking about his agenda.
"It makes a huge difference on your fundamental approach to the campaign," he said. "Now at every whistle-stop on your tour, you're not promoting the concept that 'you have to give me $500,' which is our maximum for traditional candidates in Maine. Now you're able to just promote your agenda — your policy agenda."
He said the only way he's able to run for governor is through public funding.
"I'm a retired schoolteacher," he said, "and a retired public school teacher's pension plan doesn't allow one to run for governor, trust me."
Others have a less heady view of the effect of taxpayer funding on Maine's political system, in which like others candidates can choose to run traditionally or accept restrictions and benefits that go with public funding.
"Taxpayer dollars are being used to buy balloons, bumper stickers and tulips" handed out by candidates campaigning door to door, said Lenardson, the consultant. "It's cold here. People can't heat their homes. And we're handing out tulips."
In Maine, which has a two-year state budget of some $6 billion, a total of more than $2.7 million was spent on clean-election legislative races in 2004. In 2002, the state spent nearly $1.9 million on legislative races and $1.2 million on gubernatorial campaigns. Seventy-eight percent of its lawmakers were elected as clean candidates.
At the same time, according to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, independent expenditures are higher than they were before the clean-elections law took effect.
Independent expenditures more than quadrupled in Maine, and now equal 19 percent to 20 percent of public spending. Such expenditures totaled more than $529,000 in 2004 and more than $595,000 in 2002, when there was a governor's race. Before 2002, an agency official estimated independent expenditures at perhaps $130,000.
"The Clean Election Act has done nothing to take the money out of politics," said Lenardson. "With a nudge, nudge and wink, wink, someone could be spending $40,000 or $50,000 behind the scenes to boost your campaign."
Public funding advocates say direct campaign costs have gone down, and that at any rate, the key is to sever the direct tie and coziness between officeholders and special interests.
To Lenardson, the addition of public money means one thing: "Politicians in Maine are the biggest welfare recipients in the state."
In Arizona — which has a state budget of $8.2 billion and expects to spend up to $21.4 million this year on statewide and legislative candidates — the system also has supporters and foes.
One of the staunchest opponents is David Burnell Smith, who said he ran for state representative as a publicly funded candidate on consultants' advice despite personally opposing such use of taxpayer money.
It was a fateful decision.
Smith was forced out of office after it was determined he exceeded spending limits on the primary portion of his 2004 race. He was apparently the first officeholder in the country to be removed in such a way.
Smith, who denies overspending, said he is running again, this time as a traditional candidate.
"I got railroaded out of office on a technicality," said the Republican, who accused the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission of Democratic bias. "I'll win my re-election. I'll be stronger than ever. And I'm going to do what I can to rid this state of so-called clean elections, which in reality is dirty politics."
The Arizona commission's executive director, Todd Lang, said the agency is bipartisan and Smith's accusations are untrue.
Smith said he blames himself for using the law.
"I agree with Texas," he said. "You should have unlimited contributions as long as they're reported. That's all you need."
Barbara Lubin, executive director of the separate Clean Elections Institute that promotes the public-funding law, said it was important that the law's penalties for overspending be upheld.
"If someone can ... overspend, have an unfair advantage and win and have a slap on the wrist, then the system is a joke," she said. "It was not so much about Smith but the precedent it would set for future elections."
The chances for change
Public financing is "probably the most important reform" for campaigns and could be the wave of the future, said Robert Stern, president of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.
"It clearly distorts the political process when you have private money coming in and candidates beholden to private money, in my mind," said Stern, whose group studies campaign finance and ethics laws around the country with a self-described mission that includes empowering the underserved to participate more effectively in their communities.
Even with public financing, he said, lobbying will continue — and wealthy, powerful special interests can hire many more guns than the rest. But he said public funding has an effect nevertheless.
"If they don't have that private money — if they have other money — it makes them open to arguments from a wide variety of people," Stern said, "whereas now, money really does control much of the hidden agenda.
"On the big issues, the legislators are going to be very responsive to constituents," he said. "But the little issues are really where the money makes the most difference — the little tax breaks that you never hear about."
Ellis said he likely won't introduce his legislation until the 2007 regular session, but the special session on school funding next week will give him a chance to talk to other lawmakers about it.
"It's an idea that deserves a shot," said Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, but he wouldn't bet on it passing.
"It's always been something the Republican Party has been very, very opposed to," Gallego said, "and the Republican Party is running the state."
Those who place their confidence in the power of public disclosure of contributions — including GOP leaders like Gov. Rick Perry — say knowledge empowers voters.
Perry believes disclosure makes contribution limits unnecessary, said spokeswoman Kathy Walt, and he is opposed to public funding of campaigns "because he doesn't believe it's an appropriate use of tax dollars."
"The governor thinks that with full and open disclosure that voters are astute enough to make the decision," Walt said. "They can look at campaign finance reports and make their own decisions on whether it was an appropriate contribution or an appropriate amount."
Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick's spokeswoman, Alexis DeLee, said in a statement: "The speaker is comfortable with the current system on both revolving door and campaign finance limits because the Texas system provides for full disclosure of lobby contracts and political contributions. However, he will consider any legislative that legislators file."
Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's spokesman, Rob Johnson, said: "Lt. Gov. Dewhurst is a strong supporter of open and accessible government and supports the full disclosure laws in Texas where every dollar donated to a campaign is reported to the public."
But GOP Rep. Joe Straus of San Antonio said this election season spurred his support for reform, although he's not yet behind any particular plan. He believes others are thinking the same way.
"There's too much influence. It's affecting the public's attitude toward participation in government," Straus said. "We're going to have to find some way to restore the public's confidence that they do have a voice."