Public funding -- one way to give political campaigns back to people

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Some Americans aren't giving up on attempts to "sanitize" -- so far as possible -- funding of political campaigns. Reformers continue to plug away at one old problem and a new one: the potentially corruptive influence of large contributions and the disproportionate influence special-interest groups can wield on candidates through both direct and indirect financial support.

Measures aimed at making candidates more dependent on small contributions from individual citizen supporters are being put forward in Congress and in a number of state legislatures.

While no two proposals appear to be identical, most involve a similar approach -- at least partial public campaign funding through voluntary contributions by income taxpayers. The federal government has raised more than voluntary "checkoffs" or "add-ons" when submitting their income tax forms.

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Seventeen states provide similar checkoffs to their income tax returns, using the money to finance gubernatorial candidacies and, in some instances, those for lesser state offices.

Common Cause is pressing anew for expansion of the federal program to cover congressional campaigns.

In at least six states -- California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania -- there are moves afoot to pass new or stronger public campaign financing legislation.

In Massachusetts, a proposal calls for replacing the largely ineffective 1975 statute under which those wishing to participate in the public funding program can do so only by paying the commonwealth an additional $1 when filing their income tax returns.

Instead, taxpayers would be allowed to designate $2 of their tax liability for the public campaign-financing kitty.

The measure, drafted by a special commission that uncovered widespread political influence peddling and illegal campaign contributions in Massachusetts , also seeks a broadening of public funding to include candidates for the Legislature as well as governor and other statewide offices.

To qualify for matching funds, a candidate would have to raise a certain amount on his or her own through small donations from private contributors. Those running for the Legislature, for example, could not accept a gift greater than $100 from anyone.

In Maryland, too, the thrust is expected to be to switch from the current $2 voluntary "add-on" system to a $1 or $2 state income tax checkoff.

New York backers of such a proposal say they are guardedly optimistic. "We are closer than ever in achieving this goal," asserts Derick Berlage of New York Common Cause, noting that one of the sponsors of the bill has become chairman of the Senate elections law committee. This panel has previously bottled up campaign-funding legislation.

The current proposal, similar to one that cleared the Empire State's lower legislative chamber in each of the past two years, calls for a $2 voluntary checkoff, rather than an add- on. It is projected to yield $7 million a year, based on 40 percent taxpayer participation. This would provide matching funds for candidates for governor and the three other statewide offices, plus legislative campaigns if enough money is available.

In Pennsylvania the public financing proposal embraces a $2.50 state income tax voluntary allocation. It is projected to net $3.75 million annually. Besides governor and other statewide officeS, the money would be used in campaigns for appellate judgeships and, if sufficient, might help underwrite legislative candidates, explains Dr. James Eisenstein, state coordinator for Common Cause.

Unlike a number of such systems proposed or in effect elsewhere, this measure does not provide for state matching of individual contributions raised by candidates on a $1 for $1 basis. It would provide $2.50 in public funds for every $1 raised beyond a required minimum of $100 or less in individual contributions. Under this arrangement, the first $60,000 of small donations collected from private supporters by a gubernatorial candidate would be unmatched Dr. Eisenstein explains.

Public funding in Hawaii and Michigan comes from an optional $2 checkoff. Taxpayers in Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, and Wisconsin can in the same way make $1 contributions. A similar setup is provided for under a 1979 Oklahoma statute, but its implementation has been stalled by litigation.

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