Despite Reform, Cash Still Fuels Election

by John Marino

July 9, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. By all apparent appearances, the New Progressive Party is winning the race to raise campaign cash hands down.

The NPP has deposited $1.7 million in the Treasury account for government matching funds for former Gov. Pedro Rosselló's third run for La Fortaleza, while the Popular Democratic Party has deposited just $105,000 toward Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá's run for governor, according to recent press reports.

That means the NPP already has some $3.4 million to inject into a media campaign, while the PDP currently has $210,000.

Privately, NPP officials express confidence that the fundraising battle thus far foreshadows a resounding Rosselló victory come November. The PDP, meanwhile, insists its paltry deposits so far are the result of a campaign strategy that is completely on track and that Acevedo Vilá will ultimately win the election.

It is true that the populares of late have perfected a campaign strategy that relies on a late campaign push to grab victory at the polls; it accompanied the PDP triumphs in the 1998 plebiscite and the election of Sila Calderón as governor in 2000. But it's also true that Rosselló -- a two-term governor with substantial contacts among business, local and national leaders and an eight-year record as a public administrator -- is a better fund-raiser than Acevedo Vilá.

What the true outlook is for the November gubernatorial election, however, will be better analyzed in another column, maybe sometime in the dog days of August or the September hurricane season. More immediately, the fact that the race to raise cash is such an integral part of the current campaign at all points to the shortcomings of the Calderón administration's campaign finance reform, as does the governor's lukewarm recent public support of what was once a "cornerstone" of her fight against corruption.

Calderón had announced her intent to undertake public campaign finance reform in the wake of the indictments of former Education Secretary Víctor Fajardo and a host of former agency contractors in a $3.4 million embezzlement scheme, with about a third of the money being channeled to the NPP and other political pursuits, according to federal prosecutors.

Back in early 2001, the freshly elected governor argued that campaign finance reform was an integral part of her fight against corruption. It would end the need for political parties to raise so many millions in order to win elections, and with it the temptation to cut corners and break laws in order to get the cash.

The fact that the reform fails to do just that is the biggest proof it deserves to be rolled back or substantially changed. In fact, hitting the $4 million mark to raise the maximum in public campaign matching funds under the reform appears to be a stretch for both the NPP and PDP.

The reform's architects -- a strange army of La Fortaleza architects and ex-government officials of different political ideologies -- had argued that political parties had to be wooed into participating in the public financing program because free-speech guarantees meant mandatory participation was unconstitutional. So they figured what the parties spent in the 2000 election, factored in inflation, and then came up with the $11 million limit that gubernatorial candidates can spend on advertising.

Under the reform, each party gets a base $3 million in public campaign funding and may raise up to $4 million in private donations, which the government will match, for the $11 million total.

But by placing the bar so high, the reform does nothing to stem the need of the parties to raise millions in order to win elections. It just throws millions more of public money into the mix. Indeed, the reform can cost the Treasury up to $35 million each election cycle, but a $25 million figure is more likely.

The reform also does not do enough to clamp down on the age-old loopholes used by parties to get around what are pretty stringent electoral laws. These are fundraising marathons (a great way for donors to give well in excess of campaign limits) and political action committees (which parties use to get around limits on campaign expenditures.)

From the beginning, public figures such as Comptroller Manuel Díaz Saldaña and State Elections Commission President Aurelio Gracia warned that the reform was too costly and that its expected benefits were no sure thing. Another complaint was that by passing the reform along partisan lines, the Calderón administration broke a tradition in Puerto Rico politics that electoral reforms would only be undertaken with tri-partisan support.

The campaign finance reform was a huge investment for a cash-strapped government to make, and so far its benefits appear elusive. The one sure thing is that much more will be spent this election year on campaign advertising than ever before.

The reform may be in effect, but in Puerto Rico it's election year politics as usual, and the race to raise cash is on.

John Marino, Managing 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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