Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Two Groups Want to Expand the State’s Public Financing Law to Include House, Senate Candidates

By Katherine Gregg

Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE — The plummeting economy aside, would you be willing to pay more in state taxes to finance General Assembly candidates?

Once again, a coalition that includes Common Cause of Rhode Island and the Brown University chapter of Democracy Matters is hoping lawmakers say yes to this annual bid to expand the state’s public financing law to cover the campaign costs of legislative candidates who agree to abide by accompanying spending limits.

State law already makes public matching-dollars available to candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, attorney general and secretary of state. In 2006, such funding cost taxpayers $1,965,171. In exchange, a candidate for governor was limited to spending an overall $1.962 million in public and private dollars, and other general office candidates, to an overall $490,000. The dollar amounts go up each cycle.

This year’s bill to extend public financing into the legislative campaign arena has not yet been introduced, but a draft unveiled at a news conference yesterday would provide a maximum of $30,000 to Senate candidates, and $15,000 to House candidates who face primary and general election challengers. It would also drop most of the matching requirements, and provide up to $1.875 million to candidates for governor and $675,000 to candidates for the other general offices.

Estimated taxpayer cost: $7 million during the next election.

The argument from Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, one of the repeat sponsors: “This allows qualified candidates who demonstrate grassroots support to spend their time talking with constituents and focusing on crafting good government policies, rather than hosting fundraisers and courting donors.”

Added Sen. Rhoda E. Perry, D-Providence, at a news conference yesterday: “Especially during trying fiscal times, when the state is going to have to make very important and very difficult decisions about social spending, the quality and accountability of legislators is essential.”

“In a state in which voter turnout disappointingly hovers around 50 percent, nearly half of all elections go uncontested or uncompetitive, and female and minority representation is among the lowest in the nation, Rhode Island is in desperate need of reform,” said new Common Cause director John Marion.

An analysis, distributed by Democracy Matters, of legislative candidate spending in 2006, found the average House candidate spending $17,775.

But that included the extraordinary amount that House Speaker William J. Murphy — and other legislative leaders — spent on the trappings of high legislative office, including a $5,000 outing to the U.S. Open, and dinner meetings at Mills Tavern, Capriccio, XO Café and The Old Canteen. Murphy alone spent $273,776 over the two-year 2005-06 legislative cycle; Majority Leader Gordon Fox, $107,415.

Spending by rank-and-file lawmakers ranged from the $2 spent by former Republican Rep. Joseph Scott of Exeter, to the $62,825 spent by former Rep. Todd Brien, D-Woonsocket.

Similarly, the group pegged the average amount spent by a Senate candidate at $30,295, which closely matches the public subsidy currently being proposed. However, that average, too, includes the atypical amounts spent by Senate leaders over the two-year cycle, including the $302,478 spent by then-Senate President Joseph Montalbano and the $129,570 spent by then-Senate Finance Chairman Stephen Alves. Both were defeated in last year’s elections.

Here again, the range in spending by rank-and-file lawmakers was wide, with incumbents generally raising and spending a lot more than their challengers, and winners spending as little as the $8,975 the uncontested Sen. Marc Cote spent to reclaim his seat.

Asked how he expected to win support for more taxpayer spending in a severe budget crisis, Common Cause’s Marion said: “We think it’s a small price to pay ... to get all of the other money out of the system” that is currently coming from “corporate lobbyists, and all the union lobbyists. … No longer are the other interests controlling the system by their donations.”

Earlier versions of the bill, introduced with much fanfare in past years, have not made it out of the committees to which they have been assigned.

Among those benefiting in 2006 from public matching dollars were: failed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charles Fogarty, who received the $981,000 maximum available for candidates in his race, and the winning candidate for lieutenant governor, Democrat Elizabeth Roberts, who received the $245,000 maximum in her race.

Also enrolled in the matching-dollar program in 2006 were failed lieutenant governor candidate Reginald Centracchio, who received $245,000 in public matching-dollars; General Treasurer Frank Caprio, $168,041, and his opponent, Andrew Lyon, $6,820; Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis, $245,000 and his Republican challenger, Sue Stenhouse, $74,310, according to the state Board of Elections.

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