Don’t Waste the Opportunity to Reform Campaign Finance

by Gail Shea, Executive Director, 1996-2000

June 1, 1999

There is hardly a need anymore to explain why we need campaign finance reform. The case for reform has become self-evident. The question now is whether it’s possible.

The reasons for optimism are growing in number by the day. The first hopeful sign was Gov. Tommy Thompson’s decision to add $750,000 to his proposed budget to fund campaign finance reforms. The governor’s proposal marked a major change of direction for Republicans, whose opposition to using taxpayer money to help finance campaigns had been a major obstacle to reform.

On a bipartisan vote, the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee approved the governor’s recommendation to set aside money for election reform. The finance committee’s action is the latest in a series of breakthroughs.

Senate Republican leader Mike Ellis offered a groundbreaking proposal featuring public grants to candidates who agree to spending limits and an intriguing mechanism to reduce the ability of outside special interests to hijack campaigns.

Senate Democrats then offered modifications. While there are differences between the two sides, what stands out is agreement on the need for public financing of campaigns and remedies to out-of-control independent spending and phony "issue ads."

Democratic Sen. Brian Burke and Republican Rep. Stephen Freese provided further evidence that the two parties can find common ground on campaign finance reform by introducing a reform proposal based on Minnesota’s public financing system.

Despite the progress that’s been made, reason abound why achieving reform remains a challenge.

There are key legislators who like the system the way it is and want no part of reform. There are those who are appalled at what’s happening to campaigns but are sacred to death of change. They fear bipartisanship because they're suspicious of the other side’s motives and they're afraid of supporting changes that might end up giving their opponents an advantage.

Thanks to this deadly mix of power and paranoia, our democracy is on a dangerous downward spiral. As campaigns get dirtier and pricier, fewer and fewer people want anything to do with them. Too many in the Legislature would rather throw grenades at the other side than work on reforms that serve the best interests of the voters.

Breaking free of this madness will involve risk, the biggest of which is trusting each other.

That’s a tall order. But then again the chance of reaching bipartisan agreement on campaign finance reform has never been better. We’re this close. Shame on them if they squander such a golden opportunity.