Campaign Finance Reform – Sila’s Waterloo?

by John Marino

October 18, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOGov. Calderón's proposal to publicly finance campaigns took a beating this week, getting trashed by State Elections Commission President Aurelio Gracía as "too expensive" and "ineffective" and derided by former Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barceló as an "attack on democracy."

But the rising opposition has made the governor more determined than ever to meet her goal of passing the campaign finance reform into law by year's end. A day after the SEC president spoke, Calderón backed the plan as the "cornerstone for confronting" corruption.

Given her track record in exerting pressure on the Popular Democratic Party majorities in the Senate and House, Calderón just might get her way -- despite the misgivings about the sweeping legislation being expressed by even members of her own political party.

But that could cost her in the long run because, despite whatever benefits the law may contain, the case for its need has yet to be made to the Puerto Rican public. And that's important -- given the initiative's big price tag.

No public opinion polls have been taken on the matter (it would be a great public service for a local news organization to do so.) But there is a feeling on the street that the public is just not in the mood to be giving public funds to politicians, or those wanting to join their ranks.

That's partly because of disgust over the corruption scandals hanging over so many members of the New Progressive Party administration of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló and a few PDP heads as well. And it's partly because there is a general perception that politicians from all parties show a general disregard for taxpayer dollars once in office.

Hearings on the initiative, which have been held throughout the island on successive weekends, have been so sparsely attended that some have been canceled for a lack of participation.

"Sadly, this bill has not been well received by the public at large," PDP Rep. Héctor Ferrer, who presides the House Ethics Committee, told one newspaper.

PDP Sen. Roberto Vigoreaux, meanwhile, recently said: "I don't see much support." The big objection to the bill is money. It's price tag has risen as high as $75 million per election cycle when primary elections are included.

House Speaker Carlos Vizcarrondo, who huddled with the governor and Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora this week in a strategy session aimed at getting this law and other important legislation passed, said public funding of primary races would be dropped to keep costs down.

Predicting its passage, Vizcarrando said the measure would likely cost $25 million per election cycle without primaries.

But the SEC chief put the price tag without primaries at $46 million in arguing that its cost is the "main limitation of the measure."

Romero Barceló, meanwhile, argued that passing the measure "without consensus between the three political parties is breaking a tradition that all amendments to electoral law are approved by consensus."

He pointed out that many PDP lawmakers had misgivings about the bill. Some of those are over the boon the measure would be to the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which typically does little fundraising. "It would give us a real shot in elections," PIP Sen. Fernando Martín said during testimony earlier this month.

But the most devastating testimony against the bill was that by SEC President Gracia, who was put in the post by Calderón. Besides its high costs, he argued, the measure would not work.

"There will still be scandals and political corruption," he said, adding that the reform would not eliminate "political investors" or "influence peddling." Gracia also said that the proposal called for the creation of a Financial Integrity Commission for Electoral Campaigns, charged with monitoring campaigns, which would duplicate work currently performed by the SEC.

He said the reform would "weaken the SEC instead of reinforcing it because it transfers the faculty of monitoring and auditing to the new organization."

Calderón unveiled her proposal last January days after the indictments of former Education Secretary Víctor Fajardo and 16 others in a $4.3 million extortion scam at the agency, which federal prosecutors said benefitted the NPP to the tune of $1 million.

But her proposal has to overcome at least two main obstacles.

The first is that on constitutional grounds, public financing must be voluntary and candidates could still opt to raise funds from private individuals in order to seek office.

The second is that current Electoral Law already has safeguards against undue influence by big business and wealthy individuals by forbidding business contributions outright and placing strict limits on individual contributions.

The problem is that the law has many loopholes, such as a provision allowing for anonymous donations at fund-raising marathons and other activities, which political observers and insiders have long said has been a way for the two major parties to evade the law's stringent donation caps.

It may be too much to ask the public to back an expensive measure when its effectiveness is still being debated.

"In the best of cases, we believe the measure should be the object of more analysis," Gracia said during his testimony.

Calderón might not feel like listening to her handpicked SEC chief, who has shown a refreshing degree of independence in his post, but she should.

Given the serious doubts being raised about the measure, the passage of campaign finance reform could become the governor's political Waterloo by the time it takes effect in November 2004.  

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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