The Magazine

Fundraising Arizona

We've just seen the future of campaign finance reform, and it's not pretty.

Dec 2, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 12 • By CLINT BOLICK
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Earlier this year, a state trial judge struck down the lobbyist fee but upheld the surcharge on fines. An appeals court unanimously invalidated the surcharge, but that ruling was overturned by the Arizona Supreme Court. The Institute for Justice next January will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling, in what could be a major test case on public campaign subsidies.

What are all the subsidies paying for? They certainly haven't removed special-interest influences from politics. A study by the Goldwater Institute, a free-market think tank in Arizona, shows that the voting behavior of state legislators who received Clean Elections subsidies was no different from that of legislators who ran entirely with private contributions. And special interests played a major role in collecting five-dollar contributions to qualify candidates for Clean Elections subsidies, as well as in making independent expenditures. Special interests continue to influence politics, they just do it in different ways--and they will continue to do so as long as government remains so powerful.

Nor was the election "clean"; indeed, Bob Schuster of the East Valley Tribune called 2002 the "dirtiest campaign in recent memory." It merely increased the coercive power of government over elections--a frightening phenomenon in a democracy. And instead of private contributors bankrolling negative ads, the taxpayers did.

So what did the dollars buy? For one thing, more politicians. Whenever the government subsidizes anything, we get more of it. In this election, fringe candidates came out of the woodwork to collect their campaign subsidies. Uniformly, they were rejected by the electorate, even as they were siphoning funds from the state treasury.

They also bought a Democratic governor--precisely the goal of the Clean Elections advocates. And the payoff is huge: Not only will Napolitano become the state's chief executive, but over the next four years she will appoint two of the five justices on the state's Supreme Court.

All of this was predictable, of course. The greater the influence government has over politics, the more likely the system is to favor the candidate who believes in bigger government. All of which goes to show that however appalling the current system may be, giving government control of politicians' purse-strings is sure to be worse.

Not surprisingly, the Arizona spectacle has prompted strong calls to repeal the Clean Elections Act. U.S. representative Jeff Flake, a Republican from the First District, announced that he will sponsor a voter initiative on the 2004 ballot to repeal public campaign subsidies. The initiative could shape up as the nation's most important battle over the direction of campaign finance reform.

But before the idea is snuffed out in Arizona, it may spread. A little-noticed provision of the federal McCain-Feingold campaign reform law calls for a study of Arizona's Clean Elections Act. Public financing is the logical next step in the Left's campaign to alter the political playing field. If it can happen in Barry Goldwater's home state, it can happen anywhere--including at the federal level.

The dirty little secret that needs to be exposed about such efforts is that they are designed not to clean up politics, but to secure particular outcomes. At a huge disadvantage will be candidates who believe that in a free society, participation in politics--such as making campaign contributions--should be voluntary, and that taxpayers have better things to fund than political campaigns. The cure, so far, has proved to be worse than the disease.

Clint Bolick is vice president and national director of state chapters for the Institute for Justice. He works in IJ's Arizona chapter.