Wednesday, June 25, 2008

NH Citizen Coalition Announces Public Funding of Elections Commission

On Wednesday, June 25 at 1:30 p.m. in the Legislative Office Building Lobby in Concord , the New Hampshire Coalition for Public Funding of Elections announced and celebrated the appointment of the Public Funding of Elections Commission.

Established by HB794, the commission will develop a plan to create and fund—without relying on the general fund—a voluntary system of public financing for election campaigns for the offices of governor, executive councilor and state senator. The commission’s report and recommendations are due December 1, 2008.

New Hampshire Coalition for Public Funding of Elections Steering Committee member, Commission Appointee, and Former State Senator Jim Rubens announced the appointments to the commission. In addition to himself, the appointed commissioners include John Rauh, president of Americans for Campaign Reform; Abigail Abrash Walton, faculty member at Antioch University New England; and Stuart Comstock-Gay, director of the Democracy Program at Demos: A Network of Ideas and Action.

By law, the commission should have been appointed by June 16. The governor’s two appointments are expected soon, after which the secretary of state is free to make his one appointment. Commissioners are appointed for their support of and expertise in public funding of elections and their knowledge of state budget issues, with an eye toward equal representation of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

The cost of running a successful campaign for state senate can exceed $100,000, research by the New Hampshire Coalition for Public Funding of Elections shows. This effectively bars many qualified people from public service. Voters support public funding because it reduces the influence of wealthy special interests in politics and controls the spiraling costs of campaigns.

Senator Jackie Cilley, who left twenty years of teaching with its secure income and benefits to run for office, reflected on her experience. “My husband and I are not wealthy people. We invested in our resources in raising five sons, rehabbing our home and building a business; we had no fat nest egg to support a campaign. In the current system, the only way to run successfully is to join the money chase, begging donors for dollars.”

Public financing of elections makes it possible for a wider range of people to run for office— candidates with different perspectives and fresh ideas to bring to policy-making. Candidates qualify for funding by gathering a certain number of signatures and small dollar donations; once they agree to certain conditions, such as using no private money and participating in a certain number of debates, they are provided enough money to run a competitive race. The system is voluntary—no one is required to use it. But those who opt in can use the time they would otherwise spend with big donors talking with voters about issues.

Said Senator Cilley, “It’s true there’s not much scandal in New Hampshire , but this isn’t about influence peddling. It’s about strengthening our democracy by leveling the playing field so we can draw upon the widest range of talent and perspective for our elected leadership. Public funding of elections returns control to the voters; elected officials answer only to the voters, not big donors.”

Echoing Cilley’s comments, House Finance Committee Chair Marjorie Smith said, “Our elected officials should be accountable to all the citizens of the state always. No legitimate candidate should be denied an opportunity to run because she cannot afford to spend $50,000 or $100,000 to run and win. Public funding of elections helps to place accountability where it should be—the candidate and the voters.”

Public funding of elections enjoys broad bi-partisan public support in New Hampshire , which is poised to become one of the first states in the union to adopt it, after Arizona , Maine , and Connecticut . Reflecting this broad support, speakers from across the political spectrum emphasized the importance of public financing and expressed confidence in the commission and excitement over its promise.

"I am excited that we have a bi-partisan commission studying the issue of public financing of campaigns,” said Senator Peter Bragdon. “There are certainly many questions to be answered before it can move forward, but if we never stop to look at the questions we will remain mired in the current system. This issue needs to be discussed in an open, bi-partisan manner, and the new commission provides a forum for this public discussion." Senator Bragdon’s prepared remarks were delivered on his behalf by Jim Rubens.

Representative Jim Splaine, sponsor of the bill that establishes the commission, said, “I think this seven-member commission will have talented people with the passion and insight to come up with an innovative public funding system for New Hampshire that will make our democracy and election process stronger and more honest for the years to come."

Given New Hampshire ’s current budget situation, public funding supporters acknowledged the challenges the Commission faces in identifying funding for a new program, but all expressed confidence.

"The state's budget difficulties are no less pressing than our need for a campaign funding system that restores the primacy of voters over donors,” said Rubens. “I am confident that this commission has the ingenuity required to find the needed funding sources.”

“The commissioners have been given a difficult task,” said Smith. “I have faith in them and in the people of New Hampshire to find a way to support public funding of elections.”

When asked about the commission’s prospects, Rep. Jane Clemons, Election Law Committee Chair, had this to say, “The majority of the House Election Law Committee enthusiastically supported this commission. We heard the people and their interest in changing the way we fund campaigns. This commission’s appointees have a serious and difficult mission ahead of them. I thank them for taking on this task and look forward to hearing from them periodically. We wish them success in this important endeavor for the process and the people.”

The New Hampshire Coalition for Public Funding of Elections includes individuals who have long fought for public financing—including Doris “Granny D” Haddock, and citizen organizations such as the League of Women Voters and New Hampshire Citizens Alliance.

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