The vital importance of the Citizens Election Program
Running an election campaign costs money. The people running for political office always want more money because they equate spending money with improving their chances of winning.
Someone is going to be paying for the cost of elections. While it may not seem it, we in the public have an incredible interest in being the people who pay.
For one thing, public financing of elections is cost-effective. The annual budget in Connecticut is about $19.5 billion. The amount of money for the CEP legislative campaigns is calculated at about $11.7 million or less than 1/10th of 1 percent of the overall budget.
Of course, it’s not possible to estimate exactly what the CEP will cost in any given election cycle because it depends on how many individual candidates qualify for the funds. In addition, the CEP will always cost more in years when candidates run for governor and other statewide offices that offer considerably more in public financing than do legislative races.
Still, even if the CEP cost $80 million over four years, which is at the high end of what’s plausible, that amount would still be only 1/10th of 1 percent of the budget. That means, should the CEP make the government only 1 percent more efficient, the CEP will pay for itself ten times over.
And the CEP likely leads to a much larger return because the government can bring in more and spend less. A perfect example occurred in 2009. For years, bottlers had fought successfully to keep un-returned bottle deposits for themselves, rather than have the unclaimed money applied to state conservation efforts. After the CEP was enacted and legislators no longer needed campaign funds from bottlers, the legislature passed a bill that enables the state to collect $24 million every single year in unclaimed deposits to use for conservation. This one change alone might very well pay for the entire CEP forever. There are almost certainly other more subtle examples that prove the CEP’s money-making power.
In addition to adding money to the state’s coffers, the CEP also helps to reduce expenditures. When the public doesn’t pay for campaigns, the small cabal who does can steer the state toward spending money on its interests. The John G. Rowland era was proof enough of that. Rowland and his pals spent huge sums of government money on roads and construction projects; some of these public works worked out great, and some ended up as complete disaster. The Enron/CRRA deal, which is often forgotten, cost the state $220 million. Preventing just one CRRA-like deal could pay for more than a decade of the CEP.
And CRRA was hardly the only example of the state wasting public money because of lobbyists’ and other big donors’ influence. So even if you are not a big believer in the program, even if you don’t think it works terribly well, it still might sense to back the CEP as an austerity measure.
It is not surprising that the attack on the act is being launched during this time of budget chaos – and despite the claims it’s not to save the rather paltry sum spent on the CEP. When difficult decisions need to be made, capitol insiders and party leaders want even more desperately to maintain control over the process.
The CEP does an incredible number of important things, but one of the most overlooked is its ability is to let each and every member of the General Assembly control his or her own fate. Under CEP, a hard working member should be able to qualify for public financing without any outside help. The ability to raise money without relying on lobbyists, capitol insiders or legislative leadership gives members the ability to be independent of them when it comes time to vote.
When hard decisions need to be made, the Capitol crowd wants even more leverage over members. Without that leverage hanging over their heads, members might put on the brakes, particularly in the wake of the last budget. But if leadership can threaten to cut off members’ access to the money they need to be re-elected, they are simply less likely to stand up to their leaders.
At the state level, unlike at the federal level, candidates can’t turn as easily to many small donors to counteract the influence of insiders. The number of people who paid for state campaigns before the CEP was shockingly low. With so few donors, it was easier for leadership to gain control of them, meaning that members couldn’t even turn to outside funders for some degree of independence.
For the government to be properly representative, it needs to be in the hands of the many, not the few. The CEP helps to do that and its cost is nothing compared to what it can save in terms of making government even a bit more efficient.
The CEP needs to be saved.
Jason Paul was a 2014 candidate for State Representative who ran using the Citizens Election Program.
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