Commentary

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Spend More?

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On Tuesday, Mainers will head to the polls to decide whether their state government should raise taxes so more money can be doled out to politicians running for office. With Maine’s unemployment rate already at 4.4%, nearly a full percentage point higher than in neighboring New Hampshire (3.4%), raising taxes could chase even more jobs out of state. And to what end?

Proponents of the measure argue that recent court decisions spurred changes to state campaign finance law that have left Maine’s tax-financed campaign program sorely lacking, but their story has one big problem: It suggests that the program initially succeeded. It did not.

The narrative that tax–financed campaigns have been a success in Maine is a creation of politicians who prefer to get money without having to ask for it, coupled with activists who want to see government play a larger role in campaigns. Every government program that spends money has a constituency ready to fight for it, but when we look at the actual evidence, little appears to have changed as a result of Maine’s decision to provide tax dollars to candidates starting in 2000.

Take the claim that public financing reduces the influence of wealthy interests. If that were the case, we would expect to find decreased lobbying in the Pine Tree State, but the opposite is true: Maine has seen an increase in the number of lobbyists registered with the state per year since implementing public financing in 2000. And, while a study on legislative voting behavior in Maine has not been done, a study of Connecticut’s similar tax-financing program found that legislators actually increased the frequency with which they voted in support of positions taken by the five of the largest lobbying groups in the state after taking tax dollars from the program.

Or take claims about diversity. The Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal made false assertions common among proponents of tax-financed campaigns when he wrote in September that Maine’s program “allowed waitresses, teachers, firefighters, convenience store clerks and others to run for office and win. Women benefited especially, running in greater numbers than had been possible before. Thanks to public funding, the state soon had the most blue-collar legislature in the country.”

That is just not true, no matter how often it is repeated. The gender diversity, and diversity of occupational backgrounds, of Maine legislators remains largely unchanged from the days prior to public financing. In fact, there were more women in the Maine Legislature every year from 1990-1994 than there have been in every Legislature since the implementation of public financing in 2000 (save for 2007 and 2008, which saw an equal number of women legislators as 1990). The most women to ever hold legislative office in Maine occurred in 1991, when there were 61. Today there are only 54, which is just two more than held office when the program was first implemented. There is simply no basis to claim that tax-financed campaign schemes help women compete with men.

If public financing fails to change lobbying behavior, fails to change legislator voting behavior, and fails to change the makeup of the Legislature itself, then what’s the point? Claims that the millions in public money spent on campaigns can be made up in reduced corruption or improved fiscal management fall flat. Academic studies find that state campaign finance reforms neither reduce corruption nor improve confidence and trust in government.

In reality, tax-financed campaign programs pave new avenues for politicians to abuse public funds. From 2001 to 2012, nearly $185,000 in tax dollars was given to allegedly “clean” candidates in Maine who were later investigated for abuses of the public’s trust. Some candidates were found to have forged signatures to qualify for additional “clean elections” funding. Two others made millions of dollars in unreported payments to organizations they were affiliated with. One individual even faked their entire candidacy solely to game the system and bilk taxpayers out of their hard-earned money. Working Maine families deserve better.

Even when politicians receive the funding honestly, your money is still being used to promote messages and candidates you may vehemently oppose. Just as the First Amendment protects our right to speak and associate with candidates we support, so too should it protect our right to refuse to speak or associate with candidates we disapprove of. In this case, violating that right does not even provide tangible benefits to the state.

Tax-financed campaigns boast many goals but accomplish virtually none. You don’t have to take my word for it. You can hear it from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. GAO conducted a study of public financing programs in Arizona and Maine ten years after their passage, and concluded that they neither enticed more candidates to run nor impacted who won office. On the contrary, “[t]here were no statistically significant differences observed for … contestedness (number of candidates per race) and incumbent reelection rates.”

Education. Public safety. Transportation. These are the important services we think about when deciding how much our state’s government ought to tax and spend. When voters go to the polls on Tuesday, they’ll face a different question. Do you want to raise taxes just so politicians can buy more robocalls with your money?

About Luke Wachob

Luke Wachob is the McWethy Fellow at the Center for Competitive Politics in Alexandria, VA.

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