There is no silver bullet to end political corruption

One item on New York’s legislative agenda that’s getting a lot of buzz is the proposal to provide tax dollars to political candidates for their campaigns, as evidenced in the Jan. 31 letter, “Campaign reform is key to fair elections.” Lost in the rosy rhetoric about “civic responsibility,” however, are the facts from states that have already tried these euphemistically named “public financing” schemes.

Arizona and Maine both implemented taxpayer-funded campaigns for all state legislative races in 2000. Fourteen years later, there’s little to show for it. Diversity in their legislatures has not increased, the prominence of lobbyists has not decreased, government spending has grown and a 2010 Government Accountability Office report found no evidence that either program had achieved its stated goals. In the only other state that currently provides significant taxpayer financing to state legislative candidates, Connecticut, my organization’s study found that politicians’ voting behavior was unchanged by participation in the program.

The taxpayer financing scheme proposed in New York is especially bad because it is based on New York City’s program, which provides $6 in tax funds to candidates for every $1 they raise in small contributions from donors. This makes the program expensive and easy to exploit. In fact, New York City has provided $19 million to candidates who were later investigated for corruption or other misuses of public funding since 2001.

We should be wary of “silver bullet” solutions to the age-old problems of government corruption and injustice. Based on the evidence, there’s no reason to think giving corrupt politicians more of your money will make them less corrupt. And really, is that surprising?

Luke Wachob

McWethy Fellow and Policy Analyst

Center for Competitive Politics