Facing a staggering $3.6 billion budget deficit, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Connecticut’s legislature did something almost unheard of these days. They passed a budget.
To help close the Constitution State’s deficit, instead of creating new taxes, lawmakers did what regular Americans do every day. They cut wasteful spending. One of the programs that lost funding is the taxpayer-financed campaign program for state politicians. In many ways, this cut is a big win for taxpayers.
In the wake of several corruption scandals in the early 2000s, activists pushed a tax-financing proposal in Connecticut in 2004. So-called “clean elections” were marketed as the end-all, be-all solution to shed the “Corrupticut” nickname.
In 2005, the General Assembly passed a tax-financing bill, later signed by newly-elected Gov. M. Jodi Rell. This bill created the Citizens’ Election Program (CEP). CEP participants who collect a specified number of small donations and agree to limit their spending receive taxpayer-funded subsidies to run their campaigns. Proponents promised it would wipe-out the supposedly corrupting influence of private money in campaigns and state politics.
Since the CEP started doling out tax dollars in the 2008 election cycle, almost $75 million has been spent on the program. If the program continues to grow, so will the cost. In the 2018 election cycle, the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) estimates the program will likely cost another $27.5-39 million.
So, after almost $75 million in taxpayer dollars, what have voters received from their “clean elections” program? Not much.
An analysis by the Center for Competitive Politics found no change in the voting behavior of legislators who used tax dollars for their re-election campaigns. The program didn’t change their tendency to side with organized interests when bills came to the floor. Another study released in 2010 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked at similar tax-financing programs in Arizona and Maine, which have existed since 2000. The GAO analyzed five goals set by each state after the creation of their tax-financing programs, but couldn’t find any evidence they had been achieved. The program also shamefully forces Connecticut residents to subsidize candidacies they may disagree with.
Advocates of the Citizens’ Election Program, and tax-financing schemes more broadly, ignore the reality that these programs have failed to solve the corruption problem in government. But this is unsurprising. Corruption is a disease that has long plagued government. Simply forcing taxpayers to subsidize campaigns doesn’t make a corrupt public official “clean.”
In fact, in the years since Connecticut adopted its tax-financing system, several instances of corruption from “clean election” candidates have surfaced. Many have been investigated or even convicted for the same crimes that spurred calls for tax-financing in the first place.
Beyond textbook “quid pro quo” corruption, where money is traded for favors, tax-financing schemes have incentivized candidates to seek new, creative avenues of corruption. Recently, several “clean elections” candidates around the country have found themselves under investigation for falsifying donors. One has even been investigated in Connecticut. Before tax-financing, candidates had no reason to create fake donors or lie about the identities of their contributors. Now, to reach the minimum number of donors required to unlock tax dollars, many participants find it easier to just file fraudulent paperwork. So much for “clean” elections.
It is heartening to see a bipartisan group of Connecticut’s legislators address the state’s wasteful spending on the Citizens’ Election Program. One can hope Gov. Dannel Malloy would recognize the failure of the costly program in light of a multi-billion-dollar deficit. Unfortunately, he is expected to veto the budget, sending legislators back to the bargaining table.
Tax-financing was sold as the key to ensuring legislators were not indebted to interest groups. Proponents also promised it would prevent corruption or its appearance from creeping into state politics again. Yet, over a decade later, neither ambition has come to fruition.
Supporters of the program say the budget cuts were passed in a “pretty shameful and brazen way.” Others assert that “the last thing this Legislature should do is take us back to Corrupticut.”
Fear mongering aside, in the face of a budget crisis, all spending should be equally scrutinized. Programs that have failed to achieve their goals shouldn’t be prioritized over ones that have.
Alex Cordell is a Research Fellow at the Center for Competitive Politics in Alexandria, Va. The center is the nation’s largest organization dedicated to defending First Amendment political speech rights.