JOHN FUND'S POLITICAL DIARY
Politicians make a grab for political cash.
Wednesday, February 6, 2002 12:01 a.m. EST
PHOENIX--Would you like it if every time you paid a parking ticket, 10% of the fine went directly to the political campaign of someone you planned to vote against?
That's happening in Arizona. And whether the law to fund election campaigns is allowed to stand may determine if other states try a similar way of paying politicians not just to hold office, but to also run for it.
Thomas Jefferson attacked the idea of forcing Americans to contribute to political causes they disagreed with. He called it "sinful and tyrannical." Most Americans still believe it violates any basic sense of fairness. That's why the advocates of the public financing initiative Arizona voters narrowly approved in 1998 went to great lengths to say their subsidies to politicians would be paid for out of voluntary donations to a state fund that would in turn dole out the money to qualified candidates, who collect only very small private donations.
In reality, 70% of the cash doled out to candidates comes from two unpopular groups--people who pay court fines and lobbyists.
Two other states, Maine and Massachusetts, also let candidates campaign with public money. But at least the money involved was meant to come from either general revenues or voluntary donations to a public financing fund, like the one for which Uncle Sam asks on your income tax form if you want to divert a few dollars to a presidential campaign fund. Despite clear statements that doing so won't raise the filer's taxes, less than 20% of those filling out federal income tax forms mark the box.
Arizona taxpayers showed a similar disdain for handing their tax dollars over for political campaigns. State taxpayers can check off a box on their income tax returns and divert $5 to the public financing fund or take a dollar-for-dollar tax credit of up to $500 from their tax liability if they donate to the fund. But those two sources bring in only 28% of the fund's revenue.
The bulk of the fund's revenue comes from two special taxes. Lobbyists for companies and trade associations have to pay a $100 annual fee to the state's Clean Elections Fund. Curiously, lobbyists for nonprofit entities such as labor unions, local governments and teachers unions are exempt. In addition, anyone who pays a civil or criminal penalty in Arizona pays a 10% surcharge that goes to the fund.
Lobbyists and scofflaws aren't exactly sympathetic characters, but they do have First Amendment rights. "Politicians have a protected right to free speech, but they don't have a constitutional right to single out discrete groups of people and make them pay for it," says Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice, who is challenging the law as unconstitutional. Arizona's Supreme Court will decide on March 19 whether or not to hear the case.
Free-speech advocates aren't the only ones casting a jaundiced eye on Arizona's law. A new study of the 2000 election by the local Goldwater Institute found that in the first year it was used, the Clean Elections Act failed to deliver on its promises. While Arizona elections were slightly more competitive in 2000, that almost certainly had far more to do with term limits creating open seats than with public financing. Legislators elected with public financing are supposed to be liberated from big money interests, but for the most part, the Goldwater Institute found, they voted no differently than those elected with private contributions.
Campaigns weren't discernibly cleaner. One candidate used nearly all of his $45,000 in public funds to launch a series of attack ads, including one in which the candidate himself sang. Two candidates pleaded guilty to forging many of the 200 signatures they had to submit to get public money.
Despite their ostensible goal of "cleaning up" elections, laws like Arizona's are really designed to make political campaigns a wholly owned subsidiary of the state--and thereby influence their outcome. People have the right to put their money where their mouth is, and they also have the right not to put up any money at all.