Senate Tweaks Doomed Program

Well, huzzah. The State Senate has approved a change in the public financing law. Currently, a candidate who wants public financing has to wait until February 15 to say or do anything campaign-related. Given the current fashion in extra-early campaign launches, that’s a significant handicap.

Tne new bill would start the clock “as soon as a privately financed candidate raised or spent up to $2,000 on a gubernatorial or lieutenant gubernatorial campaign — up to one year before Election Day,” reports Seven Days’ Paul Heintz.

This solves the too-late problem without ensuring ever-earlier campaign launches. Good idea.

However, it’s quickly becoming apparent that the deadline is far from the biggest problem with the public financing system. The biggest problem is the skyrocketing cost of statewide campaigns and the paltry sums on offer through the public funding system.

Currently, a gubernatorial hopeful who earns enough small donations gets to (a) keep that money and (b) get enough public dollars to bring their campaign total to $450,000. For lieutenant governor, the figure is $200,000.

And those are absolute limits. Not a penny more, from any source. Not even a mention in a party’s email blast.

These days, that’s simply not enough to support a competitive campaign.

You need look no further than the March 15 campaign filings, which reveal that the races for governor and lieutenant governor are headed for heights never before seen.

Three of the four gubernatorial candidates in the race on March 15 had each raised more than $450,000 — and Phil Scott wasn’t far behind. It’s hard to imagine $450,000 being enough for anyone, and the numbers are only going to increase.

Same for lieutenant governor. David Zuckerman and Kesha Ram have combined to raise nearly $200,000 already. (Brandon Riker almost raised $200K by himself before bowing out.) They could each get into high six figures, or perhaps even exceed the million-dollar mark, before this campaign season is done. In this Brave New World of Big Bucks Politics, the public financing limit amounts to a death sentence for qualifying candidates.

Someday soon we’ll need to raise those limits significantly, either by offering more public funds or allowing candidates to raise more money on their own. Otherwise, the public financing system is doomed to irrelevance.

And maybe this isn’t such a terrible thing. The public financing system is a finger-in-the-dike solution; the ultimate answer is to overturn Citizens United and reinstate meaningful limits on candidates of all kinds.

Also, Bernie Sanders has proven that a candidate can raise quite a lot of cash by forging a real connection with voters and inspiring a tidal wave of small donations. Judging by the fundraising prowess of Zuckerman, not to mention Matt Dunne and Sue Minter and TJ Donovan, this lesson has been taken to heart by liberal voters: their small gifts really can make a big difference.

(Yes, I know, those Dems got plenty frso large donors. But they received a lot of under-$100 gifts as well.) (And yes, I know that Phil Scott also got an impressive number of small gifts. Republicans can do it too.)

Indeed, Zuckerman has to be thanking his lucky stars he DIDN’T qualify for public financing. He’s on track to raise much more than $200,000, and he won’t be bound by any of the punitive restrictions of the public financing law.

1 thought on “Senate Tweaks Doomed Program

  1. chuck gregory

    Why, oh why can’t the legislature pay attention to the idea of vendor-based oversight as a basis for campaign finance regulation? It obliterates the advantage of money in elections, frees candidates from the threat of violations, frees winners from a sense of obligation to their major contributors and rewards citizens financially for paying attention to political campaigns.


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