Donations for the Powerful

As a third party locked out of tax-form-based public campaign donations, the Moderate Party is striving to prevent the unfair system from continuing through this election season without repairs for fairness:

The party, which sued last month in federal court, argued in a request for an injunction that the formula used to divide the money up among parties is inherently unfair and set up to benefit Republicans and Democrats while putting third parties at a disadvantage.
The party is asking U.S. District Judge William Smith to block the distribution of any public funding, which it says could be distributed at any time between now and Sept. 1.

A subsequent article in the Providence Journal about the mechanics of the program raises some real questions about its purpose:

Every Rhode Island taxpayer has the option of earmarking $5 of what they owe the state — or $10, if filing a joint return — by checking the box at the top of their RI-1040 tax return marked: “electoral contribution.”
If they also check a second box, to the right of the first one, they can direct the first $2 of that contribution (or $4, if filing jointly) to a political party.
If they do not name their party of choice, [donors’] dollars go into a “nonpartisan” account split among the established parties in proportion to the number of votes their candidate for governor garnered in the last election, and the number of top offices their party holds.
But if the taxpayer does not check this second box directing a portion of their contribution to one of the political parties, it all goes into the General Fund.

So, there are multiple paths that this money takes, but ultimately about 55% goes into the General Fund, and the state must budget for the likely requests that candidates might make — a formula that the article doesn’t describe. However, the results of the program in 2006 bring the entire pretense under a shadow:

In 2006, the state provided $981,000 to then-Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty for his failed bid to unseat Republican Governor Carcieri; $245,000 each to Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, in her first campaign for the job, and her GOP opponent, Reginald Centracchio; $168,041 to Caprio in his first run for treasurer, and $6,820 to his Republican opponent, Andrew Lyon III; $245,000 to Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis and $74,310 to his Republican opponent, Sue Stenhouse.

It seems to me that, in cases in which both candidates have requested assistance, the fund has mainly exacerbated differences that already existed. Sure, sometimes one candidate will raise (or have) so much money that he or she will decline to request any from the state, but in other cases, it’s difficult to understand how the supposedly dirty influence of money will be ameliorated by giving one competitor so much more of it than the other (making the safe assumption that Republicans Andrew Lyon and Sue Stenhouse didn’t out-fundraise their Democrat competition by the amount of difference in public funding).

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