Imagine an election season in which no one asked you to contribute more than $5. No fundraisers, no dialing for dollars, no direct-mail pleas for cash.
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If you're wondering what candidates would do with all their spare time, it's easy: They'd be talking to voters - to all potential voters, not just the moneyed set.
That's the hope of a group of citizens seeking to put a "clean elections" initiative on the 2008 general election ballot. The idea is that candidates who refuse private campaign contributions receive government money for their campaigns. Bipartisan teams of lawmakers introduced similar legislation in Alaska's House and Senate earlier this month.
If you're horrified at the thought of flushing the public's money down the toilet of electoral politics, you're probably not alone. But it's time for change if we want to wrest our government from the VECOs of the world - or name your poison: the Sierra Clubs, the Princess Cruises, the labor unions, etc.
When people give us large sums of money, it is human nature to feel some debt to them. That can translate, in the case of the most scrupulous legislators, to no more than a respectful ear when a contributor wants to talk. In the case of less principled elected officials, it can render a public official hopelessly compromised.
"I don't want to owe anybody anything," Arizona Rep. Doug Quelland, a Republican and participant in his state's clean elections program, said on an October 2006 public affairs program. "I don't want to have to have the special interests. I just want to do it and not be beholden to anybody."
Government-financed elections remove from candidates the dual burden of fundraising and the insidious sense of obligation that inevitably follows. And the public can have more faith that our elected officials are truly working for us.
Public financing also levels the playing field for political newcomers and third-party candidates. Incumbents usually raise more campaign contributions than their challengers, as they are better known and are perceived as likely winners.
Here's how the clean elections proposal works: An individual wishing to run for the state House as a clean elections candidate must collect 200 signatures and $5 from each signer. For the Senate, the number of signers and $5 contributions is 400; it's 1,500 for lieutenant governor and 3,000 for governor.
The $5 may seem like an oddity, but other states with clean elections laws have found the requirement cuts down on the number of yahoos running just because they can claim government money.
Individuals certified as clean elections candidates in a House race receive $16,000 for the primary election campaign and another $24,000 for the general election. The figures are higher for Senate and statewide races. Candidates may collect an additional 10 percent from political parties.
Running as a clean elections candidate is optional, but there is an incentive to do so. If a non-clean-elections candidate raises more than his or her clean elections opponent receives from the state, the state will provide the clean elections candidate money to match the opponent's collections - up to three times the initial clean elections disbursement.
Six states have clean elections laws. In Arizona and Maine, the states with the most successful systems, more than 80 percent of candidates opt for public financing. More importantly, observers say the influence of lobbyists and special interests is diminishing.
The program is expected to cost $6 million a year in Alaska. It's not cheap, but consider that the recently approved state capital budget includes more than $250 million for legislators' pet projects. I suspect everyone in the state could find $6 million somewhere they didn't like. And maybe, just maybe, some of that spending would drop off if lawmakers didn't have to think about where their next campaign contribution will come from.
It's said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. I would add that there's also a cash component-if we want our elected officials to work for the public. We shouldn't have special interests and big businesses bankrolling their campaigns.
Rebecca Braun is publisher and editor of the Alaska Budget Report, an independent publication covering state finance and policy. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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