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Thursday, October 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Overcast
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Is it time for Wisconsin to come clean on campaign finance?
Maine's system for publicly financed campaigns could work here
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Busalacchi says Maine's politicians aren't bought, the way so many are these days.
Busalacchi says Maine's politicians aren't bought, the way so many are these days.

Monroe physician John Frantz has had some extra cash over the years to donate to politicians.

But as the cost of election campaigns has skyrocketed, Dr. Frantz found donating more and more troubling. Political candidates "have become unnaturally dependent on people like me," he says.

The 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United - which threw out the federal ban on corporate and union spending on behalf of political candidates - "really pushed my buttons," Frantz says. "The unlimited, so-called free speech money from big corporations isn't at all what the founding fathers had in mind."

So Frantz decided to spend some of his money differently. He bankrolled a trip to Maine by Middleton public relations consultant and former public radio reporter Steve Busalacchi to document that state's 16-year-old system of publicly financed campaigns - a system in which eight out of 10 candidates for state offices take part.

As unprecedented amounts of cash pour into the campaign coffers of Gov. Scott Walker in advance of a recall election, Busalacchi considers his mission especially timely. From the filing of the recall petition against the governor until the Government Accountability Board certifies an election, Wisconsin waives donation limits for recall targets, and so far Walker has taken in more than $12 million. Much of that money comes from the deep pockets of out-of-state donors who have given $40,000, $50,000 and more.

"Who are these people, and why are they making these investments in our state?" Busalacchi asks. "I think every citizen of Wisconsin should be incensed by that."

Worse yet, he adds, was the way all public financing was wiped out in Wisconsin's most recent budget - more than three decades after the state's campaign finance reforms became a national model. He says the media paid scant attention to its demise.

"I don't think it was publicized that well," he says.

On his December visit to the Pine Tree State, Busalacchi recorded interviews with politicians, activists and others and put together a 45-minute podcast, a companion online article, and some short video interviews posted on YouTube. He came back sold on the Maine system, and hopes that the materials he's posted about it at CleanWisconsinPolitics.com will "start a conversation in Wisconsin" about trying to bring similar reforms here.

To get in on Maine's public financing system, candidates hold "friend-raisers" and solicit $5 apiece from at least 60 donors for Assembly races, more for state Senate and gubernatorial races. Those checks aren't made out to candidates, though - they're made out to the Maine Clean Elections Fund. Candidates who get the threshold number of donations for the fund are eligible for public financing paid for out of the state's general revenues.

"It brings people out of the woodwork because they don't have to do the dialing-for-dollars deal," Busalacchi says. "They don't have to risk their personal finances. You don't have to be a wealthy person to serve in your legislature."

Despite some critics, Maine's system is popular with Republicans and Democrats alike.

"It's been in force for a long time," he says. "There really isn't much danger of it being repealed."

The people who least like the law are usually incumbents, says Busalacchi, because it makes mounting a challenge easier.

Former state Sen. Beth Edmonds, a Democrat, ran and won twice, once under the traditional donor-supported system and once after the public financing law took effect.

Freed of donor donations, Edmonds says she was able to govern more independently. "She didn't feel any kind of obligation to anybody other than her constituents," says Busalacchi.

The system also boosts civic engagement, he argues. "More citizens get involved in their government, and they actually run for office."

Supporters of the system say it helped lawmakers in 2007 stand tough against chemical industry demands to overturn a ban on an environmentally harmful fire-retardant chemical. The industry "could not stop the ban," Busalacchi says. "This never could have happened without clean elections. They aren't bought, the way so many politicians are these days."

Maine's public financing system began in 1996 and grew out of a citizen ballot initiative, which under Maine law can be used to directly enact legislation. In theory, the legislature could still defund the measure, he says, but the body is typically deferential to the popular will, so that hasn't happened.

The program, though, has been partially rolled back by the courts. Publicly financed candidates are no longer eligible for additional funds if a privately financed opponent spends substantially more than the public financing cap.

Republican Andre Cushing, the Maine house majority leader, brought the case in his home state and would like to see the whole system thrown out.

Cushing's main argument, says Busalacchi, is that individual caps on private donations are so small - $350 in a state senate race - that "nobody is going to be buying votes." The lawmaker complains that unlimited independent expenditures (from PACs and other concerns not officially connected to a campaign), which the law doesn't touch, are a much bigger problem.

The idea of doing away with public financing just because independent expenditures are out of control has not gotten much traction in Maine. Independent money has skyrocketed everywhere, thanks to Citizens United, Busalacchi notes.

Besides, Maine's public financing system only costs taxpayers about $2 a year per person. "The investment they make in having an independent legislature, I would think, would be well worth a couple of bucks."

But could that system work in Wisconsin?

Busalacchi acknowledges differences between the two states. With 1 million people, Maine has about one-fifth of Wisconsin's population. TV stations are scarce there, so TV advertising plays a much smaller role.

"They win the traditional way," he says. "They knock on doors. They actually talk to people. That's what we need to get back to in our state."

After a dispiriting year of political acrimony in Wisconsin, Busalacchi found his trip to Maine inspirational.

"You had both parties that actually agreed on something that was good for the whole state," he says.

And he thinks Maine's approach could be adapted to the Dairy State with some adjustments, such as increasing the total cost to $10 or $15 a year per taxpayer.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign recently gave Busalacchi's work a shout-out on Facebook. Now he's spreading the word about his site to see if it can pique Wisconsin's interest.

Maine public financing advocates say they have to continue to remind voters of the benefits of their system. Busalacchi believes complacency, more than anything, killed Wisconsin's legacy as a public financing pioneer.

"We didn't properly fund it, and people forgot about it. And then people forgot about why we did it in the first place," he says. "It's a matter of the public paying attention again."

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