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Thursday, April 8, 2004

Your tax dollars at work?

The Portland City Council has taken an early, but big, step down the path of campaign finance reform at the local level. According to this entry from my dialing-for-dollars buddies at OSPIRG (which will doubtlessly be balanced off with an account in The Oregonian later this morning), the council voted unanimously yesterday to have the Mayor, Commissioner Sten and City Auditor Blackmer put together a plan whereby candidates for Portland elective offices could get free public money to finance their campaigns. In exchange for those funds, they'd have to agree not to accept donations from any other source.

Although the system would be voluntary, in at least one other place in which it's been tried -- Tucson, Arizona -- no candidate so far has dared to decline the public money and try to run based on private contributions. Apparently politicians fear that that would make them look too beholden to campaign donors' demands. As a consequence, there apparently are no campaign donors down there any more -- except for taxpayers, who pay for the system involuntarily. (Something similar is apparently working in Maine.)

I think campaign finance reform at every level of government is long overdue. Here in Portland, a spotlight is being thrown on this year's elections, including Commissioner Francesconi's million-dollar war chest and some interesting contributions to Commissioner Leonard's suddenly contested candidacy from some people whom he's in a position to make even richer than they already are. In fairness to those two candidates, the public is just waking up to a problem that's been present for many years. Old-timers in Portland have seen many a City Council decision made in favor of corporate and other interests who just coincidentally dropped a well-timed $10,000 into a campaign bucket or two. (You youngsters out there, head down to the library and check out the story of the Hollywood Fred Meyer store sometime.)

But I see a number of issues lurking in Portland's plan for a new system. One of them, of course, is the Oregon Constitution, which is pretty strict about government tinkering with free speech. Maybe the new system could survive a constitutional challenge, since it's nominally voluntary. But it would certainly have to be drafted carefully, with those legal obstacles in mind.

The other super-sized issue is political: whether Portland taxpayers really want to pay for the new system. The plan apparently calls for 0.1 percent or 0.2 percent of each city agency's budget to be diverted to the candidates for office. Supporters of the new system think that Portland voters will go for that, but I'm not so sure. I think that when they actually see how the system will work, the majority of taxpayers may well say no.

I help friends with their income taxes every year, and one question that comes up on every federal tax return is whether the taxpayer wants to designate $3 of his or her taxes for public funding of presidential election campaigns. The idea behind the federal "check-off" is the same noble goal that underlies the Portland proposal -- the desire to eliminate or minimize the influence of wealthy campaign contributors over the candidates after they are elected. Not a single person whose taxes I have done has ever told me to check the box "yes." Indeed, many of them have said something like, "I don't think tax dollars should be used to pay for political campaigns. Let the rich people pay for the campaigns." Paying for political ads is the last thing they want their tax dollars to do. No matter how hard I try to sell "clean" campaigns, they check that box "no," even though, as they well know, it does not affect the tax they owe or the refund they receive.

The proponents of the public financing proposal in Portland might have a better chance of getting their idea approved by the voters -- and it would surely be put up for a public vote one way or another -- if they figured out a way to pay for it without taxing the general population. Maybe some sort of special tax on political consultants, lobbyists, or contractors who do business with the city would be more palatable.

As it stands, however, they're just going to take 0.1 or 0.2 percent of the city budget, which is paid by everybody. (At least, that's if they didn't make a change to the funding portion of the council resolution at the last minute -- we'll have to wait to see the forthcoming news accounts to check that.) They're calling it an "overhead charge" on each bureau, but come on, that's just City Hall blowing smoke you know where. To paraphrase Charlton Heston in Soylent Green, it's tax dollars -- $1 million or $1.5 million per election, they say -- that will no longer be available for traditional government functions. It will mean a couple fewer police officers, a couple fewer people to patch potholes, maybe one less 911 operator.

Already a few negative voices are being heard, and the rhetoric that they're employing shows the nature of the battle that will be waged at the polls if the plan goes forward. As the Portland Tribune reported on Tuesday:

Anti-tax activist Don McIntire said he hasn't seen any details, but he called the concept a "campaign finance scam."

"What they want to do is sock the taxpayers again to give to neighborhood activists who want to run for office," he said. "I don't think it's the government's business to take money from taxpayers to give to candidates."

Thank you, Don -- constructive as always.

I'm all for campaign finance reform, and I hope this effort succeeds. But I think it will have a better chance with a different funding scheme from the one that's been floated so far. Again, what's needed is a system under which only the people who benefit most from their own influence over elections and government pay the tab to keep those systems from becoming overly corrupt.

How about a tax that gets a few tens of thousands a year out of multi-millionaire "consultants" like former Mayor Goldschmidt?

Comments (6)

I've never gotten the logic of not ticking off the Presidential campaign box. After all, that's $3 of your taxes that won't go to finance war-mongering and corporate handouts! --Or welfare and the NEA, depending on your political persuasion. Ought to be a no-brainer.

I agree with you that the acceptance of the funding mechanism of such a system is the most difficult hurdle for clean money proponents. I like your idea of coming up with "a way to pay for it without taxing the general population. Maybe some sort of special tax on political consultants, lobbyists, or contractors who do business with the city ..." My understanding of where Erik Sten, et. al. go from here is that they'll look at various funding sources as they look at the other options for the policy guts of the clean money system. I don't think it's been determined at all yet what the system will ultimately look like. There will be many challenges like this along the way.

Nothing has been determined on any of it at this point. All that happened was that the Council adopted a resolution saying "yeah go come up with details and proposed Code language... then we'll see."

I'll add my report to this mix shortly. I'm typing it up right now.

Is there any truth to the assertion that McIntire makes? How much money are people going to be provided with? (a.k.a. is it such a paltry sum that people could not be professional political candidates?)

*"I've never gotten the logic of not ticking off the Presidential campaign box."

The bulk of the funds released for Presidential candidates only go to the nominees of the two major parties (with the exception of Ross Perot in 1996). The rules are designed to push the two mainstream party candidates out in front of any third party challenger. In the end, you get less competition, fewer ideas. Like the Presidential Debate Commission, this just solidifies the two party structure.

Will Sten's plan increase competition for local offices?

I don't know, but I do know that this plan will siphon away public revenues for political candidates. In times where Portland taxpayers are continually hectored about giving up more of their earnings for to provide for "absolute necessities", this measure has about as much chance of passing a popular vote as Measure 30 did.

It smells like welfare payments to the least popular group in society - politicians.

While public funding of poltical campaigns does solve the problem of wink wink nod political donations for favors, the right wingers will never support it. Ol Dan M. will be out there screaming welfare so fast it will make your head spin. Then Lars will pile on. Such arguments resonate with a certain (unforntualy high) % of the pop.

A better idea that fewer would object to would be to figure out a way to make donations anonymous. You can give as much as you want to any cantidate you want, but all financial trtansactions are obscured by a third party and "cleaned" so that the cantidate doesn't know where the money is coming from. Logitsically challenges would arise in oversight as well as when money would show up in a cantidates "account," however I imagine many donations would dry up. The small ones would keep coming. When you donate $50 to a cantidate, you don't really expect anything. I guess there is another idea of limiting the amount of contributions, but you run up against that giving money is free speech thing.

Hard problem to solve. Public funding will never get public support though. For some reason defacto bribing politicians is the lesser evil. Go figure.


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