Prop B: Voters vs. the Phantoms

Itís not sweeping campaign reform, but it is a good idea whose time has come.

Here's a political-trivia question for you:

What is the ZIP code in Missouri from which the most campaign contributions flow to candidates for state government, and how many people live there?

The answer: 65102, in Jefferson City.

Population: Zero.

Yes, the most politically generous postal subdivision in Missouri is indeed nothing more than a postal subdivision, its "streets" lined with the post-office boxes of lobbyists, corporations and other interest groups. Check the campaign-finance reports, and you'll find the greatest largesse coming from a place in which no one lives.

This factoid comes by way of Missouri Voters for Fair Elections, the group responsible for Proposition B on the Nov. 7 ballot in Missouri. Proposition B would establish a system of public campaign financing for qualifying state candidates who agree to abide by spending limits and raise no private funds.

Not surprisingly, Proposition B is fiercely opposed by the phantoms of 65102, because it would be the first serious challenge to the stranglehold that monied interests -- from all points of the political spectrum -- have on those who seek and hold office in the state. Politicians don't seem to like it much, either.

This is to be expected. As suggested in this space for years, politicians cannot be expected to clean up politics -- especially not the essence of a campaign-financing system that helped them get elected in the first place -- so this is one of those rare diseases for which the only cure is the referendum process.

Proposition B is modeled after the highly touted Clean Elections initiative passed in a landslide by Maine voters in 1996. That measure has survived the obligatory court challenges and is in operation for the first time this fall (without the sky falling, as of Tuesday).

Its premise, like that of Missouri's Proposition B, is simple: Let individuals who demonstrate a reasonable base of support access modest public funding for their races and then set up a system to keep the playing field as level as possible. It's not sweeping campaign reform, nor will it remove the influence of money from politics, but it is, quite simply, a good idea whose time has come.

The key to Proposition B is what it would not do. In keeping with U.S. Supreme Court opinions holding that campaign-spending limitations violate First Amendment free-speech rights, Proposition B would do nothing to limit politicians from raising and spending all the money in the world to get elected.

Instead, cleverly enough, it would set up a mechanism by which big spenders will have a serious disincentive to be big spenders if they're pitted against a "Fair Money" candidate, meaning one who has agreed to play the game by rules that are more in the public interest. The disincentive is simple: Excessive spending will trigger public matching funds for one's opponent.

How do you get to be a Fair Money candidate? First, one must demonstrate seriousness by garnering a specified number (depending on the race) of $5 contributions within the district to be represented. Then candidates have to agree not to raise other campaign funds and to stay within set spending limits, using a state debit card that tracks spending to assure accountability.

As an example, a state legislative candidate must raise 200 $5 contributions within his or her district to qualify and would receive $15,000 to spend in each of the primary and general elections. Only if a "traditional" candidate (one not receiving public funding) should choose to up the ante with spending beyond that $15,000 limit would additional public funding come into play.

All the minute details (in case you're one of the 0.00001 percent of voters who actually read ballot items before heading to the polls) can be found at www.propositionb.com.

One of those details is the poetic-justice approach (my term, not the backers') to funding Proposition B: rescinding one-third of a cut in corporate franchise taxes that big business won, quietly, in 1999. This has especially frosted the state's larger corporate interests, who rather like both their tax cuts and their ability to purchase the souls of politicians.

Well, here's a point not mentioned by Proposition B supporters but from my own humble research ["Commentary," March 29]: Census Bureau numbers show that Missouri's business community has one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation, with the state ranking 43 percent below the national average in corporate income-tax receipts per capita.

Corporate taxes would have to be increased by a staggering $269 million a year to get the national median for the 50 states. The proposed hike for Proposition B doesn't scratch that.

Big business can afford the increase to pay for a rudimentary system of public campaign financing. The public, on the other hand, cannot afford to leave unchanged a system in which it pays in the end for the benefits received by those who purchase the loyalty of Democrats and Republicans alike in public office.

Proposition B is no magic wand for bringing goodness and light to a corrupted political process, but it is a step in the right direction. It represents "put up or shut up" time for voters who suspect that unseen lobbyists and special interests have just a tad too much power in Jefferson City.

No wonder they despise this idea in a place called 65102.

 
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