Let's start cleaning up Iowa's elections
Sunday, March 25, 2007 7:00 AM
Now that the general election is over and the Iowa Legislature is well into its deliberations, we forget the huge sums of money required to elect state officials. Gubernatorial candidates spent more than $18 million during the last campaign. There are no limits on individual contributions to statewide campaigns in Iowa nor on the ability of millionaires to finance their own campaigns. Some contributions to gubernatorial candidates exceeded $50,000 in the last cycle.
Does big money buy influence? It certainly buys access. Elected officials know their big-money contributors and depend on them for future campaigns. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right of citizens to make contributions to candidates as an act of "free speech." Campaign finance reforms have allowed candidates to choose to be restricted by the rules of public financing or free to raise money without them. Limitations have been placed on individual and group contributions, such as the $2,300 per person limitation now used in presidential campaigns, but candidates can still raise $150 million by building large bundles of such donations. Just setting limits is not enough. History has proved that our politicians are very creative in adjusting to limits placed on campaigns.
Seven states have approved publicly financed state elections. In Arizona's last gubernatorial election, two candidates spent $2 million instead of $18 million. More than 84 percent of Maine legislators opted for publicly financed campaigns.
Public finance legislation called VOICE (Voter Owned Iowa Clean Elections) is found in House File 805 and Senate File 553, which propose public financing of state office campaigns ranging up to $3 million for governor/lieutenant governor to $30,000 for an Iowa House seat for candidates who opt into the system. For those who opt out, contribution limits are set at $5,000 from political action committees and $1,000 from individuals. No limits can be placed on self-financed campaigns. The bills require that opt-in candidates receive additional funds if their opponents exceed their public funding limits, and include other provisions to safeguard clean campaigns.
The bills allow all donors to make $5 contributions to the opt-in candidates and $10 million per year would be set aside from funds collected by the state treasurer that are unclaimed by Iowa taxpayers.
If enacted this year, the laws would affect the November 2010 election. Funds would be collected for three years while the system is set up, providing a $30 million cushion to start the process.
As one who has made substantial contributions to state candidates over the years, I am eager to see the system change. I would much prefer that their ideas and capacity to demonstrate leadership determine their success, not how much money they can raise, which political operatives they can hire and how many TV ads they can run.
To learn more about VOICE, go to www.voterownediowa.org. More im-portant, call or e-mail your legislators and urge them to support H.F. 805 and S.F. 553
Tim Urban is a real estate developer and a former Des Moines city councilman.
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