June 1, 1997

Campaign Finance Frustrates States


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    MADISON, Wis. -- The biggest mystery here about campaign financing has nothing to do with sneaking foreign money into American politics or why certain people and not others stayed overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom.

    What people in Wisconsin are baffled about is who spent $135,000 anonymously to send 450,000 post cards to voters just before an election in April to influence a race for state supreme court.

    Similarly, campaign finance issues in other states are considerably less cosmic than in Washington.

    In California, the main question is whether the courts will allow low limits approved by voters last year on donations to legislative candidates or whether the caps will be overturned, as in Missouri.

    In Illinois, the latest news is about how legislative leaders spent tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to buy tickets to sports events, cars and other items that have nothing to do with elections.

    In Texas, the legislature refused to change the requirements to publish reports of campaign contributions, leaving in place an arrangement that is so unwieldy as to make the data essentially inaccessible.

    In New England, some states are considering financing all races for state offices with public money. The Vermont State Senate passed a public financing bill this week. The Connecticut House rejected such a measure by 2 votes two weeks ago.

    In Maine, which last year adopted the most extensive public financing system in the country, worries have arisen that the amount of public money will be too small to allow the system to function properly.

    Although the questions involving the states are on a smaller scale than in Washington, the underlying problems are the same.

    The first is that the cost of running a competitive race has exploded in recent years. In Illinois, at least four state senate candidates spent more than $1 million on their campaigns last year. In Washington State, it cost Mike Lowry $6.7 million to be elected governor in 1992 and Gary Locke $10.1 million last year.

    In New Jersey, the average cost for an assembly seat rose, to $53,000 in 1995 from $43,000 in 1993.

    Strapped candidates have sought new sources of revenue, and they have often done so in ways that proved embarrassing to the candidates and disillusioning to the public.

    The second fundamental problem is that individuals, companies and organizations who want to influence elections have been frustrated by legal restrictions on the money that they can give above board. So they have increasingly found ways to sidestep the laws and regulations.

    The problems are so universal that hardly anyone in Washington or in the states is satisfied with how the the system is working. Reflecting a view held in many states, a panel of civic leaders in Illinois said in January that "the campaign finance system is so out of control that our lifeblood, democracy, is tainted."

    But solutions are elusive, often threatening to create new and even worse problems than the ones that they are meant to repair.

    At one end of the ideological span are those who advocate using tax money to pay most campaign costs. That, the proponents argue, would spare candidates the need to raise money and relieve powerful interests of the ability to donate.

    At the other end are people who would lift all regulations on contributions and spending and rely on an improved system of public disclosure about who gave what to whom.

    In most states, the consensus lies somewhere in between.

    That seems to be the case in Wisconsin. This state has a history of clean elections matched by few others, but that has begun to change.

    A day or two before the judicial election, nearly half a million voters received post cards that read in part: "Your choices for the supreme court are: Jon P. Wilcox: 5 years experience on the Wisconsin Supreme Court; 17 years as a judge. Walt Kelly: 25 years as a trial lawyer; ACLU special recognition award recipient." There was no indication of who had sent the cards.

    In some conservative circles in Wisconsin, trial lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union are less popular than rancid cheese.

    Wilcox won.

    That was the latest episode that has tarnished Wisconsin's reputation for squeaky clean elections.

    In the election in November, the amount spent far exceeded what had been spent on past campaigns. Candidates for the state senate spent an average of $99,000, compared with $56,000 in 1992.

    The Democratic National Committee in Washington funneled money into a Wisconsin political organization that used it to pay for last-minute advertisements against Republican candidates, even those running for the Madison city council and the school board.

    For the first time, large sums were spent on political advertisements by interest groups not directly affiliated with a candidate or a party.

    The largest of the interest groups, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, an association of 3,700 companies, spent more than $400,000 attacking a handful of Democratic legislators. The group was formed in part to offset the contributions the teachers' union had supplied to Democrats in the previous election.

    The business group's ads made no secret of which candidates were supported and which were opposed. One ad called Charles J. Chvala of Madison, the Democratic leader in the senate, "a big spending liberal" who "never saw a tax he didn't hike."

    Because the ads did not specifically ask voters to vote for or against a candidate, the sponsoring organizations maintain that the commercials are purely educational and that they do not have to disclose how they raised their money or how they spent it.

    Clearly, however, the money came from corporations, and under Wisconsin law, direct corporate donations to politicians are illegal.

    In response, on the day after the November election, in which the Democrats kept control of the Senate by one seat and Republicans won a five-seat majority in the assembly, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican who was not on the ballot, appointed a commission to recommend improvements in the election law.

    The five-member commission -- two Democrats and two Republicans under the chairmanship of Donald F. Kettl, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin who is not identified with either party -- issued its findings Friday afternoon.

    The commission found that too much of the campaign financing process in Wisconsin was invisible and unaccountable to voters and that the system of regulation was "seriously strained."

    The panel proposed partial public financing for state offices, limits on how much privately raised money candidates who accept public money could spend and developing a new computerized system to make records of contributions and spending easier to scrutinize.

    The commission also recommended that outside organizations like the business groups that sponsor political ads be required to list the sources of their money and disclose how it was spent. That matter is before a federal court here.

    Of all the recommendations, Kettl said, the most important may be requiring the computerized filing of data.

    The model for that, said Herbert E. Alexander, director of the Citizens' Research Foundation at the University of Southern California, is Washington State. There, candidates are not only required to file their reports electronically, but the state also gives the candidates computer software so that reports will be uniform.

    Other states, including Maryland and Kentucky, are also moving toward sophisticated systems so that anyone with a laptop and a modem can readily examine the spending records on file in the capital.

    But most states have not gone nearly so far. The history of state campaign finance laws in recent years is that even changes made with the best intentions have often had unintended consequences.

    In Oregon, restrictions on direct contributions to candidates went into place last year, and independent organizations spent more than $2 million on their own ads to support or oppose candidates. Missouri and Washington had similar experiences.

    "Trying to create barriers to campaign finance," Franc E. Flotron, Republican leader of the Missouri Senate, said in the campaign last year, "is like what happened when we tried to build levies during the great flood of '93. Every place we built a barrier, the water just found a way around it."

    Kettl said he was well aware of the potential pitfall. "The first thing we did at our first meeting," he said, "was to take the Hippocratic Oath: 'Do no harm.' "

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