Philadelphia Inquirer

Editorial | "Clean Elections"

If It Works For Maine...

The Philadelphia Inquirer — Monday, February 26, 2007

Was an Ohio coal magnate trying to mine business opportunities when he donated $100,000 to Gov. Rendell's reelection campaign last year?

And why would the retired chairman of Merrill Lynch & Co. in Princeton contribute $10,000 to the campaign of former State Senate Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer?

Pennsylvania's free-wheeling campaign finance system allows individuals to make outrageously large donations to candidates. While donations to federal candidates are limited to $2,300 per election, the sky is the limit in Pennsylvania.

This anything-goes fund-raising system produces shockingly expensive state campaigns. Jubelirer spent nearly $900,000 last year on his failed state Senate race. Rendell spent about $32 million to win reelection.

This system of high finance inevitably raises suspicions about which masters elected officials really are serving: voters or donors? Notwithstanding the voters' revolt in 2006 inspired by the legislative pay raise, the game favors incumbents. In most election years, about 90 percent of incumbents in Harrisburg don't have an opponent in the primary, and about 25 percent of them are unopposed in the general election. The need to raise huge sums of campaign cash discourages novices and goads incumbents into spending much of their time dialing for dollars.

It doesn't need to be this way. A good model for Pennsylvania to look is Maine, which instituted public financing of state elections in 2000. The results there have been positive.

Under Maine's voluntary "clean election" system, candidates qualify by raising $5 contributions from registered voters in their district (150 donors for a Senate seat, 50 for a House seat). For $5 checks, candidates don't have to cozy up to any lobbyists, corporations, or political action committees.

A qualifying candidate then receives campaign money from the state – about $20,000 for a contested Senate race, $4,300 for a House campaign. If the opponent doesn't participate, the system matches the opponent's extra spending up to a ceiling ($60,000 for a Senate race).

About 80 percent of all candidates in Maine now participate.

Maine state Sen. Peter Mills, a Republican from Skowhegan, said public financing had "made it much easier to recruit novices into politics." He also says it has increased the number of women in the legislature – 31 percent of the state's legislators are female. In Harrisburg, only 15 percent of lawmakers are women; only 6 percent are African Americans.

There are significant differences between the two states. Maine, unlike Pennsylvania, has non-partisan redistricting. Maine also has term limits and a truly part-time legislature (salaries are about $11,000). It also does not have media markets remotely as expensive to buy campaign ads as Philadelphia's.

Corporations and unions do donate campaign money in Maine, but these larger contributions must go to the state political parties, where Mills said their impact is "diffused."

In election years without a governor's race, the system costs Maine taxpayers about $900,000. If Pennsylvania were to undertake public financing, the cost would be far higher, in the tens of millions.

But Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause in Harrisburg, makes the key point: We already pay for elections now, just in hidden, corrupting ways that favor incumbents, such as "walking around money," the unregulated grants legislators sprinkle across their districts with little regard for results or accountability.

In New Jersey, a pilot "clean election" program is collapsing because too many incumbents don't want it to succeed. If Pennsylvanians ever grow weary of indicted senators, one solution lies to our north.

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