Tn a column in Sunday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch State Senator Rob Schaaf writes about his soon to be introduced Senate Bill 1: The Taxation With Representation Act. (Get it? “with” representation. Cute, Huh?) He seems to believe that because Eric Greitens and Donald Trump managed to get themselves elected while dropping a few comments about cleaning up ethical “swamps,” now is the time to do something to stop big money from cracking the whip in Jefferson City:
This Election Day, we Missourians voted overwhelmingly against pay-to-play politics and in favor of anti-corruption reform. We reinstated contribution limits at the state level, elected a governor committed to fighting corruption in Jefferson City, and chose a president who ran against the status quo, promising he would return government to the people.
All I can do is shake my head sadly and look away. Poor naif. Schaaf think we elected a governor “committed to fighting corruption,” whereas, from where I sit, we elected a governor who allowed dark money interests to buy him the governorship – which, I assume, is the reason he opposes limits on campaign contributions, and likely part of the reason he’s been so eager to put his signature on a right-to-work bill lots of the big money types really want. And while the president-elect did run “against the status quo,” the particular status quo he opposes doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with corruption if we are to judge by his personal conflicts of interest, or his emerging plans to engineer one of the biggest corporate giveaways in U.S. history by privatizing just about everything from Medicare and Education to highways and bridges.
Somebody ought to tell Schaaf that it might not be the best time for campaign finance reform after all.
Nevertheless, Schaaf should still get some credit for proposing to redirect public tax revenue to partially fund political campaigns – not a position with which your garden variety GOPer is often very comfortable. The bill would allow Missourians to “subtract up to $100 per year from their state income taxes, letting them claim a dollar-per-dollar credit for donations to county-level party committees and to candidates for state representative, state senator and statewide office.” Well and good. Almost anything is better than the status quo in Missouri where many public office holders seem to be up for sale to the highest bidder. Schaaf’s may be a back-door approach to public funding, but any movement in that direction has some potential, no matter how small, to dilute the influence of wealthy special interests.
And Schaaf might just get some GOP support for this plan since it does not mandate any effort to allocate public funds equitably or based on some special criteria, but instead allows public tax revenue to be redirected in a partisan fashion – and right now, given the sun-blistered shade of the state’s politics, that could be a plus for GOPers. Whether or not underwriting public spending in a lopsided partisan way is a real reform is, of course, another question.
Schaaf claims several advantages to this system of funding: (1) it would encourage both candidates and parties (via the option to contribute to political committees) to be more responsive to “everyday citizens” as opposed to the big donors who have dominated Missouri political funding over the past few years. (2) He asserts that the bill would encourage engagement in the political process and empower individuals who feel sidelined by the influence of big money. He envisions his everyday donors evolving into mini “bundlers,” who solicit “friends, family and neighbors” to donate – which is not universally regarded as a good thing.
Schaaf also tells us that “such a system has worked in other states. However, while it is true that there are four states , Ohio, Virginia, Arkansas, and Oregon, that currently offer a similar tax credit, the evidence that it has widened political participation and lessened the influence of big money donors is not readily evident.
Oregon, for example, offers a loosely applied tax credit of up to $100 for households. According to PolitiFact Oregon, as of 2013, “the credit gets claimed most often during presidential election years, according to the Secretary of State’s office, but even at it’s [sic] peak, only about 7.8 percent of filers took advantage.”
Nor is Oregon exceptional in this instance. In Ohio the credit has been available for the last 26 years, but few Ohioans are aware of it. Among those who do know about the credit, “only 14 percent of donors said it was a factor in their decision to donate and only 5 percent of those who did not contribute said they would have been very likely to give if they had known about the credit.” Efforts to publicize the tax credits in Ohio have been shown to increase their use by a small percentage, it did so at a disproportionate cost.
The experience of Hilliary Clinton’s Vice-Presidential candidate Tim Kaine, the former governor of Virginia, makes it clear that the Virginia tax credit does little to rein in the influence of big donors. In the 2012 cycle he raised $18,000,000 for his senate bid, with only 17% coming from small donors who contributed $200 or less, but “28 percent of his $18 million came from 1 percent of the 1 percent, a subgroup of America’s most elite political givers.” If you look at political spending in each of the other four states, I think you will find that the imbalance between large and small donors persists and that the preferences of the former often set the governing agenda.
If Schaaf is really serious about evening the political playing field for big and small donors, there are lots of other, better approaches. According to the information on the Website of the National Conference of State Legislators, there are two main systems of public financing in use over thirteen states, clean elections programs, or matching funds programs, . Both of these types of public financing collect money which is disbursed to candidates who must meet requirements such as agreeing to limit total expenditures to agreed upon limits, and/or demonstrating their viability by either collecting signatures from potential supporters or meeting a specified fund raising threshold. Public funds are also often restricted to candidates for specific offices and only four states allow money to be disbursed to political parties to help with organizing activities.
The League of Women Voters notes that the experience of jurisdictions that have evolved systems of public funding over time shows that the following elements are likely to produce the best results: a customized system for small- donor fund matching; eligibility criteria for receiving funds; voluntary expenditure limits; accurate and timely disclosure requirements. And, of course, we all know in our secret heart of hearts that there’s no real political spending reform without limits on giving that cut down the volume of the free-speech megaphone that wealth gives to some donors in these sad, money-is-speech days.*
But don’t hold your breath waiting for any of these requirements to be incorporated into Schaaf’s bill – if it even makes it to the floor where the GOP bottom-feeders will poke and prod it into a shape more to their liking, just as they have done with most of the half-hearted ethics reform bills introduced over the past couple of years. As a matter of fact, as Schaaf’s new president, that enemy of the status quo, gets going, look for him to make sure that he puts all the people in place to ensure that he meets the GOP campaign platform promise to do away with all campaign finance laws.
Which leaves us with poor Rob Schaaf, a Republican pol in the wrong place at the wrong time.
*Addenda: Of course, Missourians did vote for limits on campaign donations, but enforcement protocols or lack thereof remains important question for the future; also the current scuttlebutt is that the money will just go “dark.” The problem goes deep.