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Orlando Sentinel

Electoral Reform Angers Opposition

By Iván Román

April 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- It was supposed to get rid of bad habits and eliminate the root of scandals: donations given on the sly in cardboard boxes, sleazy contractors' paying for expenses on the campaign trail, millions of dollars collected like magic at political rallies and radiothons.

But to its critics, the island's new campaign-finance reform, signed into law Friday, is about anything but clean money.

Gov. Sila Calderón's grand plan when she came into office was to set up public financing of all the island's political campaigns. That idea went to pot when even her own people balked at the $100 million-plus price tag.

So an elite commission came up with a compromise, a mix of mostly public and some private fundsit hopes will cut down on the level of access the "political investors" buy to secure their juicy government contracts or favorable legislation.

Here's how the plan is supposed to work in the gubernatorial election: In addition to the $3 million the candidates of each of the three registered political parties already receive in public money, the government will match any private funds the candidates raise dollar-for-dollar up to $4 million each. That means an $11 million spending cap -- $7 million public and $4 million private -- for each candidate.

The proposal also establishes an independent auditor to watch more closely the money, its sources and campaign expenses. To get the matching funds, candidates must voluntarily submit to the restrictions.

If they don't, they get not a penny more than the initial $3 million from public coffers, but with no spending limits.

Héctor Luis Acevedo, a law professor and former gubernatorial candidate who presided over the commission, said the proposal won't make everyone happy, but its cap on total spending and its limit on private donations are steps in the right direction. Fellow commissioner Manuel Fernós, the presidentof Inter-American University, urged calm before the certain storm he knew was about to hit.

"To the political parties, the lawmakers, I ask them to think of Puerto Rico first and of their political parties later," Fernós said. "It's a call to your conscience, to your patriotism. The moment requires showing real class and leaving the political tribalism aside."

A lot of good that did. The discussion was anything but civil.

Both opposition parties -- the pro-statehood New Progressive Party and the Puerto Rican Independence Party -- cried bloody murder. They said the governing Popular Democratic Party's ability to raise more private money left their parties at a disadvantage when trying to get the matching funds.

And the rush to get the bill through the Legislature in the past two weeks -- "under cover of darkness," as one lawmaker put it -- didn't help matters. The insults across the aisles were loud and venomous, even by Puerto Rican standards. The public was treated to a six-hour spectacle full of shouting, filibustering, jeering and verbal attacks on the House floor.

In the Senate, one NPP senator was so angry when majority PDP lawmakers cut off her criticism of the process that she and others stormed out, saying the bill's increasing anonymous donations to $600,000 would legalize "Sila's laundrython."

She was referring to a PDP "radiothon" in Carolina less than a month before the 2000 election that netted $1.5 million and drew accusations that Calderón had violated elections laws by laundering money through other candidates' campaign accounts to get around spending limits set for advertising.

"This week, Sila Calderón wanted to steal the elections like she stole them in 2000," NPP President Carlos Pesquera said.

With an election in 2004, voters will soon have a true test. If corruption still makes big headlines like the scandals that plagued the previous NPP administration under Gov. Pedro Rosselló, the public may want to go for full-scale public financing of elections.

Such reforms are a fairly new phenomenon in the United States. Six states have full public financing of some elective positions. In Maine, most of the lawmakers who won in the 2002 elections campaigned with public money. In New Mexico, nine of the 11 statewide officers rode to victory on public funds.

Public campaign-finance advocates say having a mix, such as the one proposed in Puerto Rico, doesn't solve the problem because it leaves too large a window for special interests to climb through.

"When you remove special-interest money, you remove people buying access to the candidates," said Rick Bielke, communications director for the nonprofit group Public Campaign, based in Washington, D.C. "Candidates who've done it [used public funding] love it. They don't have to cater to the people who give them large contributions. They can cater to people who are going to vote for them."

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