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The Baltimore Sun makes a terrible case for publicly funding campaigns and displays a shockingly naïve assumption about public corruption
The Baltimore Sun Editorial Board is notorious for its ivory-towered elitism. But sometimes, they display a shocking amount of naivete.
Everything you need to know about how wrong the Board is with this one comes in the first paragraph.
Most Anne Arundel County residents likely aren’t old enough to recall the late Joseph W. Alton Jr. who served as county executive, the subdivision’s first, beginning in 1965. In the early 1970s, he was caught up in the federal investigation of public corruption that also targeted Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson, all of whom made it a habit to take money from those who did business with government. Before he was sent off to the federal prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, Alton admitted his guilt but insisted that he had used the thousands of dollars that came his way strictly for political campaigns, not to line his own pocket.
In November 1974, Alton was charged in federal court with conspiracy to obstruct interstate commerce for trying to get $36,000 in kickbacks from companies seeking contracts with the county government,
Alton may have claimed that all the money he illegally received went to his political operation. But the fact is that Alton went to federal prison for conspiracy to commmit extortion. It didn’t matter what he did with the money. The fact remains that Alton’s crimes were not related to campaign finance law.
The Sun Board then goes on to talk about how only publicly financed campaigns can get good government and eliminate special interests from government:
There is a cure for this ailment. And that is to provide a way for candidates to win elected office without depending so heavily on special interest money. And given the cost of campaigning, there are basically just two ways to do this: Either be so rich you can self-fund, or, alternatively, your city, county or state needs to adopt a system of public financing of political campaigns that provides matching funds for small, qualifying private donations.
Does it work? Do these candidates who eschew fundraising get elected to office? Of course not. They’re too busy trying to meet onerous qualifications to get financed.
Seattle, the most recent city to implement public financing by way of “democracy vouchers,” saw disappointing results from its program.
Every city resident received four $25 vouchers that can be given to any candidate. Once candidates have received contributions from 400 Seattle residents whose signatures are verified by election officials, candidates can trade the vouchers for cash, paid for by a $3 million tax on property owners.
Instead of helping lesser-known candidates, as supporters said it would, the vouchers simply propped up incumbents and those who already had substantial fundraising apparatuses.
Of the $315,000 awarded for the primary election, the majority went to three candidates; one was an incumbent and the other two were politically connected activists.
Lesser-known candidates may have actually been harmed by the lure of vouchers because they proved to be a time- and resource-wasting distraction.
Great work, everybody. And not only that, it doesn’t even eliminate public corruption:
Between 2001 and 2012, a dozen supposedly “clean elections” candidates in Maine who used public financing were investigated for misusing taxpayer funding.
The main thrust of the Board’s argument is this:
Critics will make the shortsighted claim that public money should not be used on such puffery as TV ads for candidates that inevitably bend the truth. But that fails to acknowledge the sad case histories of public corruption and the power of special interest campaign donations. Influence peddling is still influence peddling. How should taxpayers feel about using tax dollars to insulate elected officials from those who seek special treatment? It might be the best, most cost-effective use of public money ever, that’s how.
Except that The Sun themselves have ignored the sad case histories of public corruption related to publicly funded campaigns themselves. Nor do they acknowledge that $11 million, as the program would allegedly cost, would hire over 200 more teachers.
On top of it, public financing does nothing to combat the issues the Board wants to talk about. The Sun Editorial Board seems to think that people will magically vote for candidates based on their participation in public financing alone. Since public financing limits the ability to deliver that message by creating, in most cases, spending caps it’s hard to imagine how candidates would be able to do that while they are being blown out of the water by candidates who did not participate in the public financing scheme.
Realistically it should not surprise you that The Sun Editorial Board supports this sort of thing. After all, when Howard County tried this in 2016 the usual suspects lined up to support it. As I wrote at the time:
A coalition of left-wing Democrats in one of the richest counties in Maryland wants taxpayers to underwrite the campaigns of left-wing Democrats. They realize that their ideas are losing currency and want to make sure that the government is there to bail them out politically. It means that if you are a taxpayer in Howard County that your money is going to help finance political campaigns that could be antithetical to your political views. It means that taxpayers funds could be going directly to candidates who have business with the county government. It means that government will pick winners and losers as to who does and who does not qualify for public financing.
Is there corruption in state and local government related to campaign funds? Almost certainly. But you have to have a shocking level of naivete to think that publicly financed campaigns would have anything to do in combating them. Somebody who is going to be corrupt in public office is going to be corrupt in public office regardless of where the money comes from to fund their campaigns. Just look at why some of these other Maryland public officials were convicted and you see that Alton isn’t the only one not related to campaign finance:
Spiro Agnew was convicted of tax evasion related to kickbacks Agnew received from a contractor, including free groceries.
Marvin Mandel was convicted of mail fraud and racketeering related to a race track scheme.
Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson was convicted of extortion, tax evasion, and conspiracy.
State Senator Clarence Mitchell III and Michael Mitchell went to prison for attempting to obstruct a grand jury, committing wire fraud and attempting to tamper with a federal investigation related to government contracts in a company they held a stake in.
Delegate James A. Scott was indicted on narcotics charges before his 1973 murder.
The point of all this is that very few public corruption cases in Maryland are related to campaign finance issues, despite all of the couch-fainting by The Baltimore Sun Editorial Board.
Public financed campaigns are a silly idea. They need to be eliminated in every possible instance.