Students rally for public campaign financing

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Nearly 80 Brown and Providence College students joined Rhode Island residents in the State House rotunda Tuesday afternoon to support publicly funded elections in Rhode Island.

Supporters of new state campaign finance reform legislation addressed the crowd as students and community members held signs reading “People In, Money Out” and “Love Your State? Fix Its Elections.” Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Dist. 3, and Sen. Rhoda Perry P’91, D-Dist. 3, filed the bill, the Rhode Island Public Financing of Elections Act, with the General Assembly on Tuesday.

The proposed legislation would fully finance political candidates who choose not to take any private donations. To prove public interest, candidates would have to collect a certain number of $5 contributions and then receive a grant from the state government. The office the candidate seeks determines the required number of contributions and the grant amount.

If the candidate runs against privately funded opponents, the public financing fund will then match the money spent by opponents, but the monetary support is capped at three times the amount of the initial grant.

Under the proposed system, a gubernatorial candidate would receive the most seed money – $90,000 – and would be granted a maximum of $270,000 for the entire campaign.

The proposed public financing system will face skepticism from legislators and constituents, as well as the limitations of the state’s financial situation, Ajello said.

Arizona and Maine, among other states, have adopted similar systems, but legislation in both those states was introduced through popular initiatives by voters, rather than filed by elected officials. Typically, publicly financed election bills passed by state legislatures are more limited in scope or are vetoed, as was the case of Connecticut’s bill in 2000. The Rhode Island bill will be considered by the legislature.

Members of the Brown chapter of Democracy Matters, a national student organization focused on campaign finance reform, organized the event with advocacy group Common Cause of Rhode Island, according to Democracy Matters members Jon Bogard ’09 and Aliza Kreisman ’10.

Ajello credited Brown students in Democracy Matters for bringing the issue to her attention.

With monetary support from the state, candidates will spend less time campaigning and more time responding to constituents, she said.

After the event, Ajello told The Herald that raising money had been the most challenging part of her campaigns for public office.

“(The legislation) will make running for office seem more possible for women, and we need more women in office,” Ajello said.

If passed, the bill “will help to break real and perceived connections between money and legislative initiative,” Perry told the crowd.

But passage of the legislation “will require years and years of education and clarification for the public and our colleagues,” Perry said. Ajello said she expects candidates would not be able to use public funds until the 2010 elections if the legislation is passed.

Kimberly Davis, a former publicly financed state representative from Maine, described the system in Maine as “very successful” and told the crowd the legislation had allowed more women and lower-income candidates to run for office.

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