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Public funding of presidential races debated

/ Source: The Associated Press

Election officials proposed overhauling the way tax dollars can be used to cover the cost of running for president Wednesday, including an increase in how much could be spent by primary candidates who take public money.

The proposal by the Federal Election Commission’s chairman and vice chairman, Scott Thomas and Michael Toner, follows the first presidential race in which candidates from both major parties opted out of public financing in the primaries.

President Bush skipped it in 2000; he did so again for the 2004 race, and Democrats John Kerry and Howard Dean followed suit. All went on to raise record sums from private donors.

“The presidential public financing system is at an historic crossroads,” Toner and Thomas wrote in a letter to congressional leaders. “If Congress does not act within the next two years, the system runs the serious risk of being totally irrelevant in the 2008 election and beyond.”

Sweeten the pot, commissioners say
The first step is deciding whether to keep the post-Watergate program at all, they wrote. If the answer is yes, Congress should give candidates more incentive to take part, they said.

They proposed raising the spending cap for candidates who took public financing in the primaries from last year’s roughly $45 million to $75 million or more — perhaps even the $250 million range. Kerry’s fund raising topped $200 million and Bush’s exceeded $250 million after they skipped public financing and its limits in the primaries.

The plan would increase the total taxpayer money available to primary candidates to half the new spending limit. During last year’s primaries, public financing offered candidates a taxpayer-financed match of up to $250 for each contribution, up to just under $20 million. Thomas’ and Toner’s proposal would increase the match to up to $500 per donation.

The commissioners also proposed making primary public financing available July 1 of the year before the presidential election, six months earlier than under the current system. The plan would also change when primary winners got roughly $75 million in full government financing for their general election campaigns. That money would be made available to both candidates at the same time in late summer, rather than timing its disbursal to their official nominations at the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

Rocky road in Congress likely
The proposal faces an uncertain reception at the Capitol, where a similar 2003 plan by Thomas and Toner languished.

The most active lawmakers on campaign finance — Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass. — also want to overhaul presidential public financing, but they are making their top priority a proposal to restrict partisan interest groups that spent millions of dollars in unlimited donations in the 2004 presidential race.

It is unclear whether the public wants taxpayer money used for campaigns. There was no outcry from voters when Bush, Kerry and Dean opted out in the primaries.

The system is financed by taxpayers who check a box on their income-tax returns to direct $3 in tax money to the program at no cost to themselves. Only about 1 in 9 mark yes. To increase the available money, Toner and Thomas proposed doubling the checkoff to $6.

Congress created public financing to try to remove big money and the risk of corruption from presidential elections after the campaign finance scandals of the Watergate era. The theory behind it is still valid, Thomas said.

“You’ve got a chance to replace money that might be raised by folks with fat Rolodexes and who might be responsible for baskets full of $2,000 checks with money that’s instead raised from anonymous Americans at $3 apiece,” he said. “The chances of having strings attached are much less.”