Today, WPRI released a report by Mike Nichols (with research assistance by me) that delves into the origin of public financing for campaigns in Wisconsin.

While the intent of using taxpayer dollars to run campaigns was noble – supporters thought it would lead to more competitive elections and reduced special interest influence – the actual effect has been just the opposite. In fact, often times politicians (77% of those that take the grant are Democrats) turn right around and funnel the public money to campaign purposes that are outside the intent of the law:

(State Representative Spencer) Black, for example, received $4,155 from the public fund on Sept. 30, 1996. This is the same year he gave a total of $4,775 in cash or in-kind contributions to other politicians or committees, including $1,200 to the Dane County Conservation Alliance-a special interest committee registered with the state.

On Sept. 30, 2004, state Rep. Mark Pocan accepted $5,574 from the public fund. According to his campaign reports, on that very same day he made a $1,000 contribution to the Unity Fund-the Democratic Party of Wisconsin campaign account that was used, at least in part that year, to support Democratic candidates at the national level.

Hintz received his most recent public funding, about $6,000, on Sept. 27, 2008. In the month that followed, he gave $1,000 to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

There’s more:

  • In September of 2002, Bob Jauch accepted 11,932 from the WECF. In November, he made a $5,000 contribution to the State Senate Democratic Committee. He won with 62.1% of the vote.
  • In September of 2006, Jauch accepted a $2,425 contribution from WECF. In November of 2006, he made a $1,000 contribution to the SSDC, and won with 62.3% of the vote.
  • On September 25, 2002, Russ Decker accepted a WECF grant of $11,932. During the same election, Decker spent $6,300 for a poll – for a race he won with 68% of the vote. In December, Decker transferred $1,000 to the SSDC.
  • In September of 2006, Joe Parisi accepted $5,263 from the WECF. In the same election cycle, he donated $1,000 to the Democratic Party of WI, en route to winning with 75.6% of the vote.

Furthermore, public financing hasn’t done anything to improve the “competitiveness” of state campaigns.

Of the 47 winners that took the grant, 38 (81%) were incumbents. Of the 9 winners that were not incumbents, 6 of them beat incumbents (Hines, Freese, Skindrud, Loeffelholz, Weber, and Kreibich) and 3 ran in open seats.

  • The average vote for the 47 winners who accepted a WECF grant: 63.4%
  • The average vote for the 126 losers who accepted a WECF grant: 39.3%

Of the 126 losing candidates, only 11 (8.7%) came within 5% of the winner. Only 24 (19%) came within 10% of the winner.

More from the article:

Politics in Wisconsin is, at the very least, not a game for outsiders. Spencer Black hasn’t received less than 87% of a vote since 1992 and now has more than $146,000 in his campaign account.

In 2002, Republican Steve Nass accepted $7,013 in public funding and went on to beat Leroy Watson 87% to 13%. In 2006, the Whitewater-area representative took $5,963 and beat a self-described “naturist,” Scott Woods, 66% to 34%.

If the fund helps anyone, it seems, it is incumbents, the legislators who have the power to make the laws and amend them. Or get rid of them, but don’t.

One byproduct of heavy favorites receiving the taxpayer funded grant is that they often use the grant to build their campaign accounts to levels that make them unbeatable. More on Spencer Black:

Spencer Black, the longtime Democratic representative from Madison, has repeatedly taken the public subsidy while building up big surpluses in his campaign account. First elected to the Assembly in 1984, Black has been reelected a dozen times. Up until 2000 (when opponents just gave up and stopped running against him), he applied for the tax dollars almost every time he ran.

Records from the first few elections have been lost by the state, but he was given more than $18,000 in taxpayer dollars in 1992, 1994 and 1996 alone, according to the Government Accountability Board (GAB). Those were years in which Black built his campaign fund up from a surplus of $39,000 in 1992 to more than $100,000 by 1997.

So the same fund that was supposed to make campaigns more competitive actually strengthens incumbents to the point where they can’t be beaten.

Finally, it’s important to point out that while the dollar amounts may not be large, there is a significant band of people urging the program be expanded. The article mentions Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign saying the program is failing because it’s not big enough. So this should serve as a lesson to those who think even more taxpayer money should be used for campaigns – something the public clearly opposes.

Read the full report here.

2 thoughts on “Public Financing of Campaigns: Anatomy of a Failed Idea

  1. Ah yes. I’d like politicians to get their money from the special interests that want in the taxpayer’s pocket. And with “disclosure” I can see who is bribing who, and know which briber is going to get my tax dollars after the elections, and then vote for my favorite briber!

    Is it any surprise that Transparency International has listed the U.S. as 19th in their The Corruption Perceptions Index. Got that? Our government is 19th in honesty!!! Not first, New Zealand got that, and Canada was 9th.

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