...of the Money,
by the Money,
for the Money

Small State Offers Big Idea for Campaign Funding



Augusta, Maine

by Steve Busalacchi

Introduction by John Frantz:  I have been seeking a method of leveraging my adequate but relatively modest wealth to compete with the “free speech” of the Koch brothers of the world.  Here is the result: sending Steve Busalacchi to Maine to report on campaign finance reform.  I was fortunate to know someone personally with Steve’s talents. He approached the project with reassuring enthusiasm. Read on to see for yourself.        

(Madison) January 28, 2012 -- Staggering. It's the only way to characterize the volume of political money flowing into Wisconsin, as the state prepares for near-certain recall elections. Republican Governor Scott Walker already has collected more than $12 million in contributions to defend himself. The Democratic Party's fundraising machine is churning along as well, though at a slower pace. About half of the campaign cash from both sides is coming from out-of-state donors.

Contrast Wisconsin's record-shattering donation situation to that of Maine, where eighty percent of state candidates accept spending limits after voluntarily taking public financing.

"Two dollars a person was worth it if we could make a dent in getting the big money out of politics," says Alison Smith, Director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, reflecting on the cost of public financing in her state.

Maine is certainly an anomaly, as the amount of money in American politics seems to explode with every election cycle. But does it have to be that way? Imagine a system where money is not at the center of every race. Rather than constantly fundraising and airing TV spots, candidates could spend their time talking to voters about the issues. They wouldn't feel beholden to big individual donors as they weigh heavy decisions, either. Without the pressure to raise massive sums of cash, the pool of political talent might just increase, too, as more citizens consider public service.

Maine's Way

"I wouldn't have run for public office without the clean election program," says Ed Youngblood, a former Republican State Senator from Brewer, ME. He ran successfully in 2000 as a "clean" candidate, and was re-elected to a second term.

"The sales pitch was that I wouldn't have to go out and raise money," recalls Youngblood was approached by banking colleagues who urged him to run, even though he says the thought of campaigning for office had never entered his mind. Youngblood is again running for the State Senate, as a "clean" candidate.

Like Youngblood, former Democratic lawmaker John Brautigam, who lives near Portland, ME, also ran a publicly-financed campaign. In his 2004 race for the State Assembly, attorney Brautigam says his opponent "spent more than anybody else in the state." Although Brautigam adhered to strict spending limits, he won the election by 55 votes after a recount.

"I had adequate funds to get my message out," explains Brautigam. "There's a saturation point at which people don't want any more mailers," he explained.

Under Maine's public financing system, Brautigam needed just fifty five-dollar contributions to qualify for public financing, while Youngblood needed to convince 175 citizens in his Senate district to contribute five dollars. Having both accomplished that, they received a finite taxpayer-funded budget for the campaign, and were not able to accept any more contributions, including while they served in office.

"I had no obligation to anybody other than my constituents," says Brautigam. Republican Youngblood also felt the clean election law liberated him from interest groups. "It made it very easy for me because the lobbyists are in the hallways every day."

No free lunch

But there is a cost to Maine's public financing program, which Republican State Representative Andre Cushing estimates is about $2 million per year. He claims it's a raw deal for Maine taxpayers.

"They are the helpless victims in the back of the roller coaster," says Representative Cushing. He maintains that it's too easy in Maine to qualify to run for office and too easy to get access to taxpayer money to finance your campaign. Besides, he says, "money is flowing outside of the clean election system that will influence the race outside of the candidate's control." If the law's goal was to decrease money in politics, Cushing says it's a "dismal failure."

Alison Smith, of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, agrees that independent spending remains a huge problem, but she blames that on court rulings that allow unlimited campaign contributions; not on the Clean Election law. Smith is more concerned about direct contributions to candidates, which she believes have a more corrupting influence.

"These investments are business decisions," says Smith. "They are not electoral decisions." And Smith says citizens know very well that these wealthy contributors expect something in return for their generosity. "The deck is stacked. The game is rigged. And [citizens] are getting the short end of the stick every time," says Smith.

The citizens initiated this voluntary public financing system via a binding referendum. Fear of the corrupting influence of money in politics led to the law.

It passed in 1996, and has been going strong ever since, despite lawsuits and other forms of opposition. Representative Cushing was a successful plaintiff in a suit which forced the state to stop providing matching funds to "clean" candidates when traditionally-funded candidates continued to raise money above certain thresholds.

Death of Wisconsin program

Wisconsin taxpayers pay nothing to finance elections because the entire 33-year-old program was eliminated in the last state budget on June 26, 2011. Remember that check-off on the state income tax? Well, it's history. Last year, the Governor proposed funding changes that would have crippled the public financing program, so the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee took Walker's idea to the next logical step and put the program out of its misery, altogether. When Governor Walker signed his first state budget, the program and the language that created it, disappeared.

In doing so, the Government Accountability Board estimated that about a million dollars from the languishing Fund would be transferred to the state's general fund, thereby officially mothballing the program. According to a national report, Wisconsin's Watergate-era law was considered among the best in the country when it first was established.

Upon its demise, the remaining public financing money was used to implement the new voter-ID law, which critics charge addresses a problem that doesn't exist because there's no evidence of mass voter fraud in Wisconsin.

Cost of campaigns

Without any other funding options, Wisconsin candidates rely on individual and organizational donors. The majority of that funding comes from rich individuals and interest groups. Governor Walker's fundraising report is a case in point. The Walker campaign reported, for example, that Foster Fries of Jackson, WY, cut a check for $100,000. William Hanley of Palm Beach, FL, gave $50,000. And a self-described "housewife" from Dallas, TX, chipped in $25,000.

Four other individuals top them all, each having given his campaign $250,000. The irony is that none of these big contributors can vote for Governor Walker because they don't live in Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin, contribution limits are off so candidates can collect as much money as they can before the recall election date is set. Normally, there's a $10,000 limit on individual campaign contributions.

Even so, money in politics continues to soar and the U.S. Supreme Court has not helped matters. In 2010, it ruled that corporations are "persons," and as such, enjoy free speech rights. In this case, that translates to unlimited spending on federal candidates.

Candidate spending falls

While Maine still must contend with large contributions from independent groups that can spend on behalf of candidates—but not at their direction—it has successfully muted the campaign spending of individual state candidates. What Maine has achieved seems to attack the very issue that Common Cause is concerned about. The non-profit and non-partisan advocacy organization worries about who pays for campaigns, what they get in return, and how that affects public policy.

It's the latter, where Maine has seen a difference, according to Alison Smith, of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. When a proposed ban came up on a fire retardant known as deca, Smith says the chemical industry "fought it tooth and nail," but came up short, nonetheless. Eight of ten lawmakers in the Maine Legislature were elected as "clean" candidates. And since public support strongly favored the ban, Smith says that's how they voted. "The Speaker of the House told me they never could have passed a ban on deca without clean elections," recalls Smith.

Policy influence

In the Badger State, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reports that the liquor, beer and wine industry has contributed more than two and a half million dollars to legislators over the past 10 years—one of the largest campaign contributors in the state. Although the Centers for Disease Control just named Wisconsin the number one binge drinking state in the nation, the Wisconsin legislature refuses to raise the beer tax to fund some of the carnage caused by alcohol abuse. The most recent proposal that was shot down would have imposed a six and a half cents per gallon tax. But that was not acceptable, and the beer tax remains unchanged after 43 years. Could campaign contributions to key lawmakers have anything to do with that?

When you accept big money, a former Democratic legislator from Freeport, ME, says, "it's hard to be unbiased. It's human nature." Beth Edmonds, a library director, served two terms in the Maine Senate, first as a traditionally-funded candidate in 1998 and then as a "clean" candidate two years later who later became Senate President. Having experienced both funding worlds, Edmonds says she even noticed a change in her own behavior toward constituents.

"Just out of politeness, if you see a $100 contributor, you say, hello and ask what brings them to the Capitol. The little old lady who can't pay her fuel bill doesn't get the same attention," she says.

Fundraising to beat off a recall attempt is obviously a top priority for Governor Walker, having amassed an impressive war chest in a relatively short amount of time. In fact, on January 17 when Walker opponents delivered what they say are more than one million recall petitions, Governor Walker was in New York City for a fundraiser hosted by troubled financial giant A-I-G.

Last fall, not even the most massive and enduring Capitol protests right outside the Governor's office could distract him from the influence of big donors. In the middle of this unprecedented state crisis that triggered the recall effort, Governor Walker took a call from a presumed, big league donor, while tens of thousands marched outside of his east wing office. Governor Walker chatted at length with a person whom he thought was New York oil billionaire David Koch. Koch industries, long hostile toward unions, is Governor Walker's second largest contributor, according to Common Cause-Wisconsin. Walker was really talking to a prankster named Ian Murphy.

Moving forward

If Wisconsin were to embark on a citizen-based attempt to re-establish a public financing system that actually works, where would it start? Unlike Maine, the citizens of Wisconsin cannot just pass a binding referendum and change campaign finance laws. Voters could initiate and pass an advisory referendum, but it would still be up to Wisconsin's state legislature to enact a law.

Maine's Ed Youngblood says the biggest hurdle to creating an effective public financing system is not resistance from either major political party per se, so much as it is incumbents, generally. "The minority party is especially interested," says Youngblood. Sitting lawmakers don't tend to like a system like Maine's because it becomes much easier for a potential opponents to mount a campaign. And that's not in an incumbent's best interest.

The other big hurdle is the financing. Taxpayers need to pay for these "clean" candidates, and politicians today are loathe to raise taxes for anything, especially when the economy is in the tank. Nationally, conservatives even sign pledges never to raise taxes under any circumstances.

Maine is a geographically small state and elections do not hinge on TV advertising to get a candidate's message out. In fact, there are only two TV stations in the whole state. This means elections there do not require huge budgets. In Maine, taxpayers have spent only sixteen million dollars funding clean elections since the law took effect in 1996. But for bigger states like Wisconsin, more public financing money would have to become available for those clean candidates to compete against traditionally financed opponents.

Advocates of clean elections in Maine say there is no reason why a similar public financing program wouldn't work for Wisconsin and other states. Arizona, Vermont and Connecticut already have comparable public financing efforts in effect.

But the Midwest should be well-suited for a viable public financing program, given Wisconsin's reputation for relatively clean politics. Plus, the Badger State traditionally has had a lot of ticket-splitting voters, meaning independent thinkers abound.

Jonathan Wayne, who directs the Maine Ethics Commission, says the size of the state shouldn't have much to do with whether public financing of elections can be implemented, either. Wayne, who oversees Maine's program and monitors how the taxpayers' money is spent during elections, says public financing has the same effect wherever it is used. "It reduces the role of money in political campaigns and the role of contributors and their interest in issues," says Wayne.

Last May, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign announced an innovative public financing plan called Ending WealthFare, for getting big money out of state politics.

·        Designate $10 per state taxpayer per year from the general fund to the Wisconsin Clean Election Fund

·        A tax credit for small contributions

·        Sharply lower spending limits

·        Greater disclosure of campaign spending and the source of the money

·        Corporations and associations must notify shareholders of campaign donations and get a majority vote to OK them

Sustainability

If a public financing program were re-established, it would still take a sustained public education effort to see that citizens continue to understand its importance. Even in Maine, where the Clean Election program has been in place since 1996, supporters are in a constant state of defense, against critics, lawsuits and funding cuts.

"There's no rest for reformers," says Alison Smith. Former Maine legislator Beth Edmonds agrees. Although there remains widespread public support for the law in Maine, she says voters there still need to be constantly informed about why the clean elections system is valuable.

"We need to keep reminding people what the law allows, encourages and discourages," she says. "You're saving money hand over fist," says Edmonds, because getting big money out of politics pays big dividends in terms of a more democratic government.

Perhaps Wisconsin's public financing law languished because there was no coordinated effort to inform voters of its worth. Taxpayers all saw the check-off on the state income tax form, but how many really understood the program?

A recent report from the legislative fiscal bureau states that in 2009, 96% of Wisconsin voters chose not to voluntarily donate three dollars to the public financing system via the check-off. Consequently, hardly any Wisconsin candidates agreed to take public financing and its spending limits because there wasn't enough funding available to make it practical for them to go that route.

What's happening in Wisconsin instead, according to the report, is "...contribution data shows that a relatively small number of individuals, committees, and businesses are providing the funding for these races."

A prophetic 2008 report from the California-based Center for Government Studies, an organization that promotes fairness in government policy-making, looked specifically at Wisconsin's public financing law, and concluded that it was "failing." The report said public funding has been frozen, candidates do not accept the dwindling monies that remain and the candidates' spending limits are unrealistic. Without major changes, the 45-page report accurately predicted that Wisconsin's public financing system was doomed.

Citizens must lead

Ultimately, any change in how Wisconsin elects its leaders will have to come from the same source as Maine—from voters themselves. A majority of Maine citizens voted to rely on five-dollar contributions to create a better, more accountable way to elect their leaders. In more populous Wisconsin, perhaps the ante would be ten or fifteen dollars each if the Badger State developed its own version of a workable public financing system.

"Almost every paper in the state recognized that this was one where the people had to lead," says Alison Smith, of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, noting that citizens alone are responsible for electing their leaders.

"What could be better for American democracy than for citizens to get off the couch and have a stake in their elected official, rather than Monsanto or big pharma?" asked Smith.

Steve Busalacchi is a Madison-based writer whose trip to Maine and subsequent reporting were sponsored by a Wisconsin citizen concerned about the growing influence of money in politics. Listen to Steve's  podcast report, and hear directly from these sources:   www.cleanwisconsinpolitics.com