Greg I am not nearly as enthusiastic about the effectiveness of Clean Elections to fix the problems with money in politics. Clean money programs do more to obfuscate the influence of money in politics than eliminate it.

While clean money programs will enable non-traditional candidates the opportunity to run for office (the upcoming issue of PolicyMatters carries an article describing how Clean Elections help women’s chances running for office) I don’t see how it will solve any of the real problems associated with money in politics.

First, Clean Election systems, are by law required to be voluntary. Any candidate must have the privilege of opting out under Buckley v. Valeo. However sometimes there arises a premium on opting in. This can be a problem for Republican and Libertarian candidates who may find their sense of fiscal responsibility at odds with a costly public financing system. Should California really send such a message if it challenges a major principle of some people’s political ideology?

Similarly, independent expenditures, which the Supreme Court ruled are protected under the First Amendment, cannot be stopped. Any group or individual may support a candidate without giving money directly to the campaign. The difference between buying access (or influence) through direct contributions and through independent issue ads doesn’t seem very real to me. So how does clean money actually stem the corruption problem?

The next problem is unique to big states like California and New York. The cost of running a campaign in cities or statewide is expensive. Consider the number of people to be reached, the cost of media buys, and the vastness of the state. A successful state senate campaign can cost nearly a million dollars. Include the number of candidates running each election and throw in the other hundreds of contested offices the state would have to pay for. Suddenly the program gets very costly for a system that leads to little change (incumbents still usually win). The other option is limiting the amount of money distributed to candidates, but that won’t work as well in CA as it does in ME and AZ where candidates are allotted less than $25,000 for both the primary and general elections.

I hate coming off as the enemy of public financing, but I have no problem being labeled skeptical that clean money will eliminate corruption. Money does play too big of a role in politics and hope we can change that. I have a feeling that the combined effect of open seats and public financing may get us closer to where we need to go. Since California does have term limits, open seats come up fairly often. The real question in my mind is will it make a noticeable and meaningful change without bankrupting the state?

Mr. Kato, your response?

2 Replies to “As goes Maine and Arizona so goes California?”

  1. There may indeed be fiscally conservative Republicans or Libertarians who would be ideologically opposed to using public funds for their campaign. The very fact that they are allowed to opt out though, seems to make this a non-issue. I would argue that there are other candidates whose ideology would make them hesitant to take private contributions for their campaign finance needs. With voluntary public funds, both ideologies are accomodated.

    The lines between private donations and independent issues ads is transparency. In the recent scandals involving big money, influence was bought under the table though private donations and obscured through elaborate money exchanging schemes. Independent issue ads, on the other hand, are a viable, open way for groups to express their opinions, and are accounted for in the Clean Money and Fair Elections act, with candidates receiving funds to effectively respond within days.

    Total Clean money expenditures are capped at an amount equal to 1.5 cents per day per CA resident over 18. Currently this comes out to about $134 million, less than 0.1% of the overall state budget. When considering all the money in the budget going to special interest groups through various programs, Clean Money may very well pay for itself.

  2. Thanks for the response Emily.

    I welcome the point about capping total expenditures. I hadn’t heard that it only amounts to 0.1%. While that doesn’t seem like much, $134 million spent on a program that still leads to incumbents winning most of the time, shifts money to other venues, and obscures the trail of contributions from public view suddenly seems a bit more expensive.

    As to opting out, we both seems to agree that the voluntary nature of the program is one of its better features. However this is where the Clean Money advocates win the framing debate in a way that hurts other candidates. By calling the money clean you are helping put a positive spin, a “premium,” on the program. While the Libertarians and Fiscal Conservatives can opt out. They have public pressure telling them that even if they would like to, it just wouldn’t fly.

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