Taxpayer-Aided Campaigns Benefit Incumbents, Libertarian Group Says

July 7, 2008 - 8:29 PM

(Correction: 62 percent of Maine legislative candidates have accepting public funding in 2002)

(CNSNews.com) - Maine's taxpayer-financed political campaigns inherently benefit incumbents and have done little to increase competitiveness among candidates, according to a new analysis by the libertarian Cato Institute.

The report appears just as campaign finance changes are about to take place on a national scale and shows the futility of imposing fund raising limitations, according to Patrick Basham, a senior fellow at Cato, who co-authored the analysis of Maine's Clean Election Act.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which will begin affecting federal races once the 2002 elections are over, is far more comprehensive than the Maine law. It will ban soft money contributions to the national political parties and increase individual hard money contribution limits.

However, "anything that limits the amount of money that can be spent helps those who need the money the least and that is usually the incumbent. They are quite happy to have the burden of fundraising removed," Basham said.

In his report, Basham compared data from Maine's 1998 and 2000 elections -- before and after the Clean Election Act took effect. Under Maine law, candidates for state office can opt to have their campaigns publicly financed as long as they agree not to generate their own private funding.

Basham called Maine's taxpayer-funded campaigns a failure for not introducing new candidates to the political process, as was intended.

The biggest impact from Maine's "clean elections," Basham said, was the advantage incumbent legislators experienced in 2000. He predicted similar results in this year's election.

"Rather than making incumbents more vulnerable to challenge, the Clean Election Act has helped to entrench incumbents," he said.

Based on his analysis of Maine's state Senate and House races in 2000, Basham said incumbents who accepted taxpayer funding won nearly all of their races. All 11 Senate candidates and 22 of the 24 House candidates who accepted public money were victorious.

In addition, Basham said, third-party candidates fared no better in 2000 than they did in 1998. Two Independent candidates were elected to the legislature in 1998, the same result as in 2000.

Besides these problems with the Clean Election Act, Basham said he was primarily concerned about the constitutionality of taxpayer-funded campaigns, which he believes infringe on the free-speech rights of citizens.

"I don't think it's either right or proper that taxpayers are funding campaigns they may not agree with or even be aware of," he said.

In Maine, the state Senate has 35 members and the House is made up of 151 representatives. One-third of the 351 candidates involved in races for the state legislature in 2000 accepted public funding for campaigns.

That figure has jumped to nearly two-thirds (62 percent) in 2002, evidence that supporters of the Clean Election Act used to refute Basham's analysis.

Micah Sifry, a senior analyst for Public Campaign, a group that backs taxpayer-funded elections, criticized Basham's study for drawing conclusions based on a small set of data.

"Before we draw big conclusions, maybe we need to give it another election cycle," he said.

Sifry also countered some of the figures Basham cited in his analysis. According to Public Campaign, 32 percent of incumbents tapped public funds in 2000, nearly identical to the 33 percent of all candidates who accepted the funding.

Besides, Sifry said, Basham's theory about the advantages incumbents enjoy under the Clean Elections Act is contrary to the feelings of many state senators or representatives who participated in the system.

"Incumbents who have described the process of qualifying for clean election funds have said it's dramatically changed how they have to run, but not that it makes it easier," he said. "A lot of them complain it's harder because they have to find registered voters to give a $5 contribution. That means you have to spend a lot more time knocking on doors."

In order to qualify for public funding, each candidate must collect a pre-determined amount of $5 donations from citizens to assure that the candidate is a serious contender. Once that task is completed, the candidates receive a set amount of funding for the primary and general elections.

For the 2002 election, House candidates received $4,255 in public funding for the general election, while Senate candidates were given $17,528. If an opponent raises more money than the amount given to a "clean election" candidate, the state will match it with up to twice the initial distribution.

"The Clean Elections Act has put politicians back where they belong -- on front porches of people's houses talking about issues with everybody in their district, not just the ones who wrote them a $1,000 check," said Doug Clopp, a project coordinator for the Maine Citizen Leadership Fund.

Clopp, a proponent of the system, cited examples of the 2000 election to illustrate its success.

One of the biggest upsets came when a first-time Senate candidate topped a 16-year Democrat incumbent. If it were not for the Clean Election Act, Republican Edward Youngblood has said he probably would not have run against -- or defeated -- then-Sen. Richard Ruhlin.

In this year's election, another Republican, Stan Moody is taking on incumbent Rep. Elaine Fuller, a Democrat. Moody has opted to utilize government funding, while Fuller has criticized the system. She was part of a coalition of individuals who unsuccessfully challenged its legality in court after voters approved the ballot initiative in 1996.

"I don't think we should be spending more than $2 million to fund political campaigns when that money could go to other sources in the state," said Fuller, who was first elected in 1996. "It's an inappropriate diversion of tax dollars."

But Moody said the public-financing system makes it easier for citizens to run for public office and reduces the likelihood that politicians are beholden to special interests.

"I've been able to focus a lot more on the campaign," Moody said. "There's so much to do in these races, particularly if you're a challenger. You don't have the organization behind you. It's better to concentrate on strategies to win than it is to be concerned about raising money."

E-mail a news tip to Robert B. Bluey.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.