By Jack E. Lohman
The recent news that Governor Jim Doyle has called a special session to act on campaign finance reform is indeed welcome.
The Governor seeks reform that includes a “fully-funded” campaign finance system for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Let’s hope he also meant for the state legislature, but that wasn’t clear.
While he called for “comprehensive” reform, the details would be left to the state legislature. That’s sends a troublesome signal, but for the moment let’s go with it.
There are two issues, scope and level of funding.
The scope should be easy: everybody and complete. Everybody, including both the state legislature and judicial candidates. Complete, meaning full and not partial public funding. That’s 100% funding, not Mike Ellis’ weaker 35% Senate Bill 12. Comprehensive means comprehensive, doesn’t it? We don’t want “partially” corrupt politicians.
The real battle will be over its “public funding” aspects. Not because it requires an unbearable amount of taxpayer dollars, because it doesn’t. But because the Republicans have reversed sides and now want to win public support on their efforts to reduce spending and taxes. This gives them an excuse to block reform (albeit a pretend excuse).
Remember that the Republicans were the big spenders when in power with Tommy Thompson at the helm, but that’s a story for a different day. And while good campaign reform will reduce spending and taxes, it will also level the playing field and that’s the last thing in the world politicians want.
The truth is, we already have public funding of campaigns. It’s just through the back door and at hundreds of times more than if we paid for campaigns directly. We could fully fund them for $5 per taxpayer per year as opposed to the $1300 per taxpayer it now costs us when legislators pass laws that transfer state assets to the private interests that currently fund their elections.
But if you close your eyes you won’t see this.
The funding source is another issue. Doyle suggests an increase in the check-off amount from $1 to $5, and if the public funds are guaranteed in the event of a shortfall, that’s fine. But even I forget to check it off, so I’d prefer a check mark to decline.
An alternative would be a surcharge on criminal fines, like they do in Arizona. If you don’t want to contribute to the elections, don’t speed!
Opponents will label this as welfare for politicians, but there can be no better form of welfare for politicians than the current subsidized system where more than 90% of incumbents win re-election.
And they’ll argue that people shouldn’t have their taxes go to candidates they don’t agree with. But that’s already happening under today’s system when state assets and tax breaks are given to special interests that contribute to candidates we don’t support. Think it out. It’s the same thing.
Taxpayers want politicians to act in their best interest even while they take money from special interests that want just the opposite.
And of course, Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch complains that individuals will not be able to support their candidates, but he’s dead wrong. If their candidates have opted out of the public system and chosen to take private money, political cash can flow as it does today. He’ll love that.
In the end, our public electoral system should not be funded by private interests that have business before the state. If we want politicians beholden to the public, the public must fund their elections. If we want them working for us, their campaigns can’t be funded by them.
Most taxpayers, when they study the costs both ways, will not object to the $5 investment in campaigns, especially if it is a surcharge on criminal fines. In fact, they’ll demand it.