Friday, September 10, 2004

Small donor democracy needs tax credits or government refunds to avoid legalized bribery

It's a bad thing when the wealthy people who write $2,000 checks (and the wealthy associations who can write $15,000 checks) to political candidates end up with the most access to those candidates. That means they get to shape public policy more than lots of voters who can't afford to write big checks to candidates. And that's the way it is now.

Hence, the horrifically named "campaign finance reform."

One area of improvement in funding political campaigns to avoid undue influence by wealthy people and industries that has gotten short shrift is beefing up the amount of people who give small checks to candidates. If every single voter gave $10 every week to a political candidate or organization that they agreed with, there would be no need for any candidate to chase after the big checks. More givers -- who aren't parasites looking for special laws to enrich themselves -- would be a great thing for our democracy.

How to get more givers?

One important way is cultural. Do *you*, Mr. or Miss Reader, give money to political candidates? Why the hell not? Where do you think those candidates get the money to buy websites and letters and staffers? They don't sell anything. So *you* have to send over 10 or 20 or event 100 bucks. Go on. Send someone some money online right now. Anyone you admire. If, somehow, we can get more people to give money by changing the culture, things would be better.

Another important way is to have the government pay the cost of a small donation (up to $100), through a tax credit or a voucher. The United States Public Interest Research Group has just released a well-researched report on the five state programs that refund or credit small donations, as well as a history of the federal tax credit that existed from the mid-70s through the 1986 Tax Reform Act (which we should always thank Dan Rostenkowski for, this provision notwithstanding). The report is here and it's called Toward a Small Donor Democracy: The Past and Future of Incentives for Small Political Contributions.

We already have incentives for large political contributions. The parasites who make most of these large contributions get plenty of government incentives in special tax breaks or particular programs designed to enrich the donor. That's something we all pay for.

Small donors aren't looking for anything special. That's why it's a judicious use of precious taxpayer dollars to cover the cost of these small donations, since they are corruption-free dollars. And the more we can permit honest candidates to run campaigns without taking corruption-tainted money, the better off we're all going to be. It's hard not to be influenced by some group that gives a candidate $5,000. But from the candidate's perspective, if they aren't getting enough small donations from regular people like you and me (have you gone online and given yet?), and they need some funds to wage a campaign, what are they going to do? So most of the honest folks with steely determination resolve not to let the large contribution affect their votes or their allocation of attention. But it's hard.

How else can we explain how the rich guys who own horse race tracks get a state grant of millions of dollars (I think about 28 million) every year? And don't get me started on Halliburton and the oil companies and the drug companies.

Illinois should follow Minnesota's lead on this. When any resident gives a candidate or party money, they get a receipt back from the campaign. The resident then mails that receipt to the State, and the State send them back a check equal to the amount of the contribution, up to $50. You can't get more than $50 back per year. So basically, any candidate that wants to run without any corruption-tainted dollars can do so and the parasites don't have a stranglehold over candidates getting elected. We're all liberated to elect candidates without the parasites' money.

I know I could talk lots more people into giving to candidates and parties if they'd get their contribution back from the State. And that would engage more people into our democracy, which is a very good thing.

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