Column: Making small money bigger

Here are some things we know are true:

1) The economic struggles of average working people are not being addressed by the country's political system.

2) Politicians have to spend an inordinate amount of time angling for campaign dollars, and when donors and lobbyists hand over big checks, big favors are expected in return.

3) These issues are related.

What we don't know is what to do about it.

On this front the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United vs. FEC may have done us a favor by forcing campaign finance reformers to shift strategies.

For decades, reforms have focused on keeping big money out of politics. Most would agree it's always found a way in. In the last presidential election, the first one since Citizens United, hundreds of millions of dollars from super PACs and secretive nonprofits went to prop up the candidates, mostly to benefit Mitt Romney. The 2010 ruling recognizing a First Amendment right of corporations and unions to make unlimited independent political expenditures energized the nation's plutocrats to invest (and I mean invest with an expected return) in politics like never before.

Round Two is on deck. Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging the aggregate legal limits put on federal campaign contributions. Shaun McCutcheon, from Alabama, wants to give much more to the Republican Party and its candidates than the current two-year federal limits of $46,200 for candidates and $70,800 for groups. I expect he'll be given the green light by the court's conservative wing.

Don't be discouraged. There is an alternative to putting limits on big money, and that is to amplify the voice of small money. It's a simple yet effective concept: Empower small donors through a multiple-match system of public financing. New York City is already doing it, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing for it statewide.

Here's how it works: Donations made by New York City residents up to $175 are matched 6 to 1 in municipal elections. A $50 contribution from, say, a sales clerk or home health aide becomes a $350 contribution after the match. This alters the political process in encouraging ways.

Suddenly candidates have an impetus to ask their constituents from all socioeconomic classes for campaign donations rather than rely on wealthy donors who may not even be in their district.

Proof of its democratizing effect comes from a joint study by the Brennan Center for Justice and the Campaign Finance Institute. The organizations looked at the difference in the type of small donor who gave to New York's 2009 city council candidates, where multiple-match exists, and the 2010 state assembly candidates, where it doesn't.

By studying donor patterns in the city's census blocks — groupings of people who live in a localized area — researchers found in almost 90 percent of census blocks at least one person, and often many, gave $175 or less to a candidate for the city council. By contrast, only 30 percent of census blocks included a small donor for the state assembly races.

Who gave was also different. In some of the city's poor black, Asian and Hispanic areas small donor participation rates were up to 24 times higher in city council races than state assembly.

Los Angeles recently adopted a 4-to-1 dollar match for its general municipal elections. And a federal push is also under way, according to Adam Skaggs, senior counsel at the Brennan Center.

One key is that there be no spending limits as a condition of participation — otherwise front-runner candidates may refuse to join. But by broadening the base, maximum contribution limits for candidates who opt in can be lowered. The public money spent on the match will come back in multiples once political leaders aren't beholden to hand out sweetheart deals to lobbyist donors, Skaggs says.

Florida leaders don't have this on their radar. Campaign finance reforms under consideration in the Legislature would increase transparency for contributions, eliminate one type of candidate-controlled political committee and raise candidate contribution caps from $500 to $10,000. There is nothing that would raise the voice of average people and encourage more political engagement.

Multiple-match public financing has the potential to deliver a government that takes the side of the people, not that of money. On that hope alone, it's worth a try.

Column: Making small money bigger 03/09/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 8, 2013 10:37am]

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