How many chances do they need?

November 14, 2006   •  By IFS staff   •    •  
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Yesterday in the L.A. Times, columnist George Skelton post-mortemed Prop. 89, the public financing initiative that California voters overwhelmingly rejected last Tuesday.  His conclusion: “Campaign fund reform deserves another chance.”

Given that more voters opposed public financing (5,214,297 voters) than supported enhanced penalties for sex offenders (5,038,809 voters), it seems unlikely that Californians will be eager to give it another chance anytime soon.  But does Skelton know something that the 5+ million Californians who rejected public financing don’t?  Or does he know something that advocates of public financing don’t?

On the first question, we don’t think so.  On the second, read on and find out…the answer might surprise you.

California’s rejection of public financing should not be surprising; public financing just isn’t that popular an idea.  As John Samples notes, “Support for the idea [of public financing] was highest during the Watergate era.  It then declined steadily through-out the next two decades.  In recent years, almost all evidence indicates strong public opposition to public financing, even when polling questions are biased to produce a favorable response.”  John Samples, The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform 184-85 (2006).

Despite the fact that people generally (and Californians specifically) have rejected public financing, Skelton wants to give it another shot.  The problem, he claims, is that Prop. 89 was flawed.  Says Skelton:

Under the “Clean Money” proposal, state candidates could have received public funds for their campaigns if they agreed to tight spending limits. Candidates running against selffinanced [sic]opponents, or attacked by rogue “independent expenditure committees,” could have gotten extra public money.

So far so good. But then the measure went awry. It’s $200-million annual cost would have been borne only by corporations through tax hikes. Worse, corporations would have been crippled in ballot measure fights by limiting their contributions to $10,000.

He later adds, “Everyone should chip in.”

Can he be serious?  If voters were unwilling to force corporations to bear the cost of public financing (and kudos to California voters for that), why on earth would we expect them to be eager to bear the cost themselves?  In fact we have direct evidence that, generally speaking, voters are unwilling to do this.  This evidence of public apathy towards public financing can be found in a yearly “poll” conducted by the IRS: the presidential public financing tax check-off.  Despite requiring only the check of a box to earmark the funds, and not requiring participants to pay any additional taxes, participation in this program hovers only slightly above 10 percent.  John Samples, The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform 185 (2006).

What’s remarkable about Skelton’s column, though, is not his unwavering support of public financing in the face of massive and repeated public rejection, nor is it his suggestions for “improving” future initiatives.  The real shocker is his suggestion for what to do in the absence of public financing:

But if there isn’t going to be some public financing system, we ought to erase all the contribution limits that have spawned unaccountable “independent expenditure committees” and money-laundering through political parties. Allow candidates to raise all the money they can from any source, while expediting public disclosure.

We could do without the scare-quotes and some of the more loaded terms (“unaccountable” and “money-laundering”), and we’re wary of the disclosure trap.  Nevertheless, we at CCP believe in giving credit where credit is due, and we think the basic idea is great (so great, in fact, that the Founders wrote it into the Constitution).  Skelton expresses it even more eloquently in his final paragraph:

No public financing? Allow politicians to make one call and raise all the money they need, if they can. Shine a public light on the transaction for voters. And let the officeholders spend the rest of their time doing the public’s business.

It’s a shame that Skelton considers this only a second-best option, but the above quote proves that Skelton does know something that most advocates of public financing don’t: deregulation is a viable option.  We’re pleased to see it gaining in popularity.  That’s more than can be said for public financing.

Update: For more on this topic, Bob Bauer has posted related analysis of Skelton’s column here.

IFS staff

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