McCain-Feingold Bill Arouses New Interest In State Campaign Finance Reform

 
Efforts to rein in the activities of special interests have intensified in a few states where political influence peddling and campaign fund-raising are increasingly viewed by voters as the same thing.

In Arizona, for instance, a bill has passed the legislature that would force lobbyists to report on the state's website the names of candidates to whom they contribute or for whom they solicit money.

Lobbyists would also have to disclose any campaign finance committees on which they serve, a requirement that could prove embarrassing since lobbyists routinely show up as members of incumbents' advisory or fund-raising panels.

In addition, if signed into law by Gov. Jane Hull, it would prohibit lawmakers from using state premises and resources, such as office phones or email, to raise money.

A similar bill may also be headed for a vote soon in the Tennessee House. But it would include tougher reporting and disclosure requirements for candidates at both the state and local government levels. The bill's sponsors hope to eliminate any appearance of conflicts by shining an intense light on contributors.

An Iowa bill resembling the Arizona measure has also made its way through at least one chamber of the legislature, but it has now been relegated to the pile of unfinished business that lawmakers may not get to this year.

In Wisconsin, home to U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, legislators are predicting a round of new efforts aimed at reducing the role of special interest money in statewide elections. Bills likely to be offered in the legislature this year may be modeled after the U.S. Senate-passed McCain-Feingold measure, which places limits on union-and corporate-sponsored campaign issue ads and bans unlimited "soft money" donations to the national parties from corporations, unions and individuals.

Wisconsin State Sen. Mike Ellis has already introduced one bill aimed at controlling the influence of special interest money in state campaigns. His bill, dubbed the "Clean Government Campaign Plan," does not bar corporate or union contributions. But it imposes voluntary fund-raising and spending limits on candidates and provides for partial public funding of statewide and legislative races. Ellis said in an interview with Stateline.org that he believes his bill goes much further than McCain-Feingold in addressing the soft money issue because it takes away "the financial advantage of special interest groups by matching their expenditures dollar for dollar" with public funds.

"These matching funds would kick in whenever a candidate goes over (the agreed to) spending or fund-raising limits or when an independent, outside group runs ads or sends out mailings on behalf of a candidate that goes beyond the limits," Ellis said. "State parties would even be treated as independent groups under my bill...My bill is fair because it treats everybody the same and makes them play by the same rules."

Though few Wisconsin lawmakers give Ellis' measure much chance of passing this session (a similar bill he sponsored failed last year), he believes the media attention focused on the campaign finance battle in Congress has raised awareness of problems at the state level.

"I think we have a better chance this time around because the corrupting influence of money has gotten worse and the success of McCain-Feingold has at least awakened the consciousness of people to the problem," Ellis said.

At least two states - Connecticut and Alaska - have already gone where no state or the federal government has gone before. They have banned soft money contributions to the parties and have set tougher rules governing special interest fund-raising activities.

In March, a legislative committee in Connecticut also approved another bill authorizing taxpayer financing of statewide campaigns. A similar measure passed last year but was vetoed by Gov. John G. Rowland. He has threatened the same fate this year for the revived measure.

But like Ellis, the Connecticut bill's sponsors feel the reform winds blowing in their direction given the momentum of the McCain-Feingold measure and public opinion polls showing Americans believe special interest contributions are a corrupting influence.

A poll of New Yorkers conducted in April by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion found that 71 percent of those surveyed support taxpayer funding of campaigns if it's coupled with spending and fund-raising limitations. The poll followed the unveiling of a proposal by state Democratic lawmakers that would provide $2 in public funds for every $1 raised by statewide candidates.

A recent public opinion survey of Oklahomans by the Daily Oklahoman and the University of Oklahoma also confirmed what most national surveys show - that Americans in general believe special interest contributions buy access to politicians that average constituents don't have.

Another poll released this spring by the North Carolina Center for Voter Education offered up the same cynical view of the campaign finance system. Nearly 75 percent of the 600 North Carolina voters surveyed said politicians spend more time raising money than solving problems. And 91 percent of the those polled said campaign contributions do influence how politicians legislate either "a great deal" or at least "a moderate amount." The survey found as well that a majority of those questioned - 60 percent - favor some form of public campaign financing, although 49 percent of the respondents expressed concern that using tax dollars might result in funding cuts for vital programs.

"What our poll shows is that people are getting to the point where they feel that the government - government being the results of the campaign finance system - is just not representative," says Jesse Rutledge, the center's communications director.

Rutledge added, however, that it would probably take "something like a fund-raising scandal " to get people angry enough to insist on change even though 62 percent in the poll said the issue ought to be addressed before the 2002 election.

 
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