Campaign Finance Reform

by John Marino

February 8, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOIn the wake of former Education Secretary Victor Fajardo's indictment, Gov. Calderón proposed legislation to create public funding of political campaigns, and few have dared to raise their voice against the idea.

The tale told through a federal indictment of how Fajardo and a few cohorts at the Education Department stole and extorted millions for their benefit and that of their political party, the New Progressive Party, has enraged Puerto Rico. In the current climate, no proposal, however radical, seems wrongheaded if it can keep a scandal like the corruption scheme that sucked $4.3 million out of the island school system from happening again.

The Calderón plan, details of which are expected to be released in her State of the Commonwealth address next week, pre-dates the Fajardo scandal. It was actually part of Popular Democratic Party's campaign platform in last year's election. But a day after Fajardo's indictment, the governor brought up the issue, saying she wanted to pass it into law this year.

On paper, campaign finance reform is a worthy goal, eliminating the often-corrupting influence of big money, and the practical need to raise a lot of cash if a party or politician wants any real chance of victory. From a practical perspective, however, the idea is still largely unproved, and it has the potential of changing the face of Puerto Rican politics in ways that have yet to make it into the public debate.

Another big question will loom over the coming debate: is it wise for the Puerto Rico government, which has problems providing educational opportunities for public school students and keeping streets safe for families, to spend millions each year covering the cost of political campaigns?

The voters should be allowed to speak directly on that issue.

One big obstacle to the plan is the U.S. constitution, which prevents banning campaign donations outright, so any campaign finance reform has to be voluntarily.

All campaign finance reforms must take into account the 1976 Supreme Court ruling Buckley v. Valeo, which found that political donations are protected under First Amendment free speech guarantees.

Only a handful of states - including Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and Arizona - have enacted such reforms. And none has been completely successful.

Massachusetts's lawmakers, for instance, declined to fund the plan until a recent state Supreme Court ruling mandated that they do so. While Vermont had campaign reform laws on the books, Democratic Gov. Howard Dean decided to forgo public financing when his Republican challenger raised millions in out-of-state contributions.

While NPP politicians have been more lukewarm on the proposal than those of the Popular Democratic and Puerto Rican Independence parties, few have dared to oppose the idea. A significant exception is former Gov. and Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barceló, who predicted a surge of "political parties trying to get public funding but not for the good of Puerto Rico."

There's no doubt public financing of campaigns could change the way politics are conducted in Puerto Rico. One reason: it favors independent, minority or non-traditional candidates who would have more trouble raising cash from the private sector than traditional party candidates.

It's, therefore, not surprising that the PIP has long supported public financing of political campaigns. The idea has the promise of allowing special interest candidates - whether they are green, good government, anti-abortion or tax-reform advocates - of getting an honest shot at holding office.

That could be beneficial for Puerto Rican politics, molded as it is by the status landscape. The pro-commonwealth and pro-statehood parties tend to sneak into office for reasons wholly unrelated to status, but then set about pushing their own agendas, and erasing that of their predecessor's, for status-related goals.

If the perennial status debate could be separated from the debate over public policy, there's no doubt Puerto Rico would be much better off. That can never completely happen until the status debate is finally settled, but public financing of campaigns could shake the hold the main political parties have on the system to beneficial effect.

That is not why Gov. Calderón is proposing campaign finance reform, however.

She is doing it to stop public corruption - and public financing of political campaign's track record on this count is still unproved.

It's probable that reform would bring a needed sobriety to political campaign expenditures. But a big obstacle remains: if publicly financed campaigns must be voluntary, then corrupt politicians would likely opt out of the plan.

One could argue that public opinion would force candidates to play by the new rules, but Puerto Rican voters have yet to speak on the issue. And as Dennis Kennedy, of the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance, told the San Juan Star: "On the one hand, candidates could claim to be running clean elections. On the other hand, the opposition could point to the public financing and say the candidate is depending on taxpayer money."

It's good that Gov. Calderón has proposed campaign finance reform, and it's good her political opponents have not rejected it out of hand.

While the debate on the matter ensues, however, there are less sweeping measures to guard against the political influence of public corruption.

The main thing to do is to ban telemarathons and anonymous donations completely, which are a big loophole to fairly stringent electoral laws. If anything, caps on donations are too strict, forcing parties to use the telemarathon system. Current donation caps might have to be raised if these loopholes would really disappear.

Another good idea is to ban a sitting governor from serving as president of a political party, which would eliminate the temptation of the chief executive to request the now infamous donation "quotas" from his or her Cabinet.

If consensus is reached on these two issues, campaign finance reform will have already dealt a blow against corruption.

As for the public financing of political campaigns, I say let the debate begin.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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