Cook On Concord: Campaign funding ball in Legislature’s court

As previously reported, I had the opportunity to serve this fall on the Commission to Study the Feasibility of Public Funding of State Election Campaigns, established by the Legislature last year. The commission, made up of seven members appointed by various elected officials and the secretary of state, met from August until the end of November and issued its report on Dec. 1.

Basically, the commission’s charge was to see if it was feasible to raise money from public and private sources, not including the state’s general fund, to pay for a system of public funding of state election campaigns for governor, Executive Council and State Senate. New Hampshire’s House, with its 4,000 members, was thought to be too large to accommodate public funding.

In other states, notably Maine, Connecticut and Arizona, public funding plans have been instituted at the state level. There is also a public funding plan for the presidency, although President-Elect Obama chose not to take part in it.

The first task the commission had to undertake was to figure out what plan it was trying to analyze. Any plan has to be voluntary, and no candidate has to accept it. Those candidates who elect to participate have to raise a certain number of small contributions, which vary with office sought. Raising enough contributions then entitles them to matching funds during the primary up to a maximum amount, after which they can continue to raise the small contributions with no absolute limit. In the general election, primary winners receive a grant that varies according to office. Those who get on the ballot by petition (aka independents) get a similar grant.

While no one knows how many candidates will opt into the system, the commission made its estimates based on prior experience, both in New Hampshire and in states that have public funding. The total cost for a full system was estimated to be $12 million plus per two-year election cycle, or over $6 million a year.

The commission had over 50 possible revenue sources proposed to it, including broad-based taxes, small and large fees, taxing expenditures made by candidates who do not elect into the system and who spend huge gobs of money on Boston television, and other sources. The commission rejected most of these sources as impractical, unlikely to be passed, or illegal.

The commission recommended a number of financing sources, including increased fees for lobbyist registrations, issuance of a New Hampshire Primary license plate similar to the “Moose Plates” currently available, an auction of low-number license plates when they come up for transfer and an increased fee for low-number license plates.

Further, surcharges on fines and fees were suggested, as was a check-off system allowing those filing tax returns and other state filing forms to make voluntary contributions to the fund.

Recognizing the state’s fiscal condition, the commission suggested a pilot program that would involve six Senate districts selected by lot. These districts would have public funding available to candidates for three election cycles. A supervisory body would be established to evaluate the results and make recommendations for changes. The pilot program would cost approximately $300,000 per year.

The commission’s report emphasized what the commissioners believed going into the process and had been reinforced during it — public funding of elections has a lot of advantages. The influence of big money is lessened while grassroots participation and support is strengthened. Candidates of average or only moderately large means can afford to participate in the process. While the power of the incumbency is not eliminated, candidates opposing incumbents have a chance to run credible campaigns with enough money to have their messages get to the people.

Indeed, this might be a reason the New Hampshire Republican Party should think carefully about supporting public funding, given the difficulty of finding candidates in the last several elections with sufficient assets to run for office. Most important, campaign money comes from the public and not special interests seeking special influence.

The 2009 Legislature undoubtedly will have one or more bills submitted to it containing the recommendations of the commission, in one form or another. In a tough budget year, those interested in public funding of elections should consider carefully the pilot project recommended by the commission and urge legislators to give it a try.

Brad Cook is a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association.