Privately funded campaigns encouraged Wall St. meltdown


POSTED: Sunday, September 28, 2008

A full public funding option for elections, which would give candidates the choice either to run their campaigns with private money or to attempt to qualify for full public funding, is the deal of the century. Yet when it comes to the idea of a comprehensive public funding option, also known as “;fair elections”; or “;clean elections,”; there are several popular misguided arguments for waiting to implement this important reform.

Without question, the argument that is used most often is that “;it would cost too much money.”; For sure, providing a full public funding option is a financial commitment; especially as the cost of elections continues to rise. Despite this, we still end up paying for elections by not paying for them.

It's often challenging to explain how we the taxpayers “;eat the costs”; of elections since those costs are passed on through ways that are sometimes hard to detect: no-bid contracts, health care expenses and infrastructure mismanagement, among other things.

Because of the recent Wall Street collapse, though, it has suddenly become easy for fair elections advocates to explain how a privately financed elections system ends up costing taxpayers more money in the end. The Wall Street bailout is expected to end up costing taxpayers nearly $1 trillion. If the fox is guarding the hen house, though, should we expect anything different?

The largest corporations are bound by shareholder law to consider only one thing when it comes to their executive decisions: profit. Using the lobbying arms through K Street firms (like the one Jack Abramoff was associated with), these industry giants are manipulating laws to make sure their portfolios continue to grow at the expense of consumers, taxpayers and small businesses. The result is a raiding of the public coffers.

During World War II, U.S. corporations paid for more than 50 percent of the overall share of federal taxes. In 2001, these same corporations paid 21 percent. Today, they now pay less than 10 percent. Also, one-third of America's largest and most profitable corporations paid zero taxes in at least one of the first three years in the new millennium.

This large-scale example is no different at the state level. When corporate interests are by and large calling the shots in the lawmaking arena, the laws are often geared for the short-term financial gains of the campaign funders, rather than the long-term protection of taxpayers and the public interest.

Voters realize this is the game being played, and in the face of it they feel powerless. The symptoms of this type of political climate eventually become obvious. The number of voters showing up to the polls goes down, and the number of candidates challenging incumbents slumps, too.

The fair elections program addresses these problems by giving more candidates the chance to qualify for money to run for office. The qualifying process is no easy task, but if someone is motivated enough to qualify, it is possible. The program, which is funded by a voluntary $3 check-off on state income tax forms, is expected to prove successful.

In other states where fair elections are working, there is an invigoration of democratic principles. More candidates are running for office, more people are donating small amounts to candidates and more people are showing up at the polls. As a result, lawmakers are able to more easily make decisions for the long-term health of citizens, the environment and the economy. Instead of pandering to greedy corporations, they are able to legislate with a more balanced and sustainable approach.

Hawaii's leaders took an important and positive step during the last legislative session when they passed legislation that would create a pilot program for fair elections for Big Island County Council elections, beginning in 2010.

Without a doubt, as the 2009 legislative session draws near, we will be hearing about how a full public funding option costs too much taxpayer money. There will also probably be legislative bills that will attempt to do away with the public funding option for Hawaii County.

What we need to remember next spring is that if profiteers are the biggest funders - if we don't give candidates an alternative - we sentence the lawmaking process to a profit-motivated system. If we instead provide a full public funding option, we allow candidates the choice to try to break free from that “;pay to play”; paradigm, and at the same time we give taxpayers the opportunity to take back control of elections. In fact, we help avoid the type of financial house of cards that is indicative of the Wall Street meltdown and we give ourselves the deal of the century.


Kory Payne is a community organizer with Voter Owned Hawaii, an organization advocating publicly funded campaigns.