Iowa Democrats working on proposal for publicly funded campaigns

Voluntary system would let candidates receive public funds if they decline all private contributions

The proliferation of corporate and private money in elections is prompting Senate Democrats to take another run at establishing a voluntary system to finance Iowa campaigns with public dollars.

A Senate subcommittee began work Tuesday on a voluntary campaign finance system modeled after Maine’s approach that would allow candidates to receive public funds if they agree not to accept private contributions – a move backers hope will slow the “tidal wave” of private money flowing into election races at all levels.

“In Iowa, from dog catcher to president, it has been astonishing to see the amount of money that has been available for even down-ballot races,” said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, a member of a Senate subcommittee that discussed Senate Study Bill 1072 – dubbed the Voter-Owned Iowa Clean Elections or VOICE Act – but took no action.

Iowa currently is one of 13 states with no political contribution limits, and the state has no public financing component for its elections.

SSB1072 creates a voluntary mechanism for publicly financed elections and establishes contribution limits for candidates who do not participate in the public financing process. The proposal enacts a process for public financing for statewide and legislative elections and creates a separate, non-reverting fund in the state treasury of up to $10 million with potential sources of revenue that include an income tax check-off, tax deductions, state appropriations and unclaimed property.

“Many people believe that money in politics, money in campaigns drives policy. Whether that’s true or not, if it’s a public perception, then you need to deal with the perception,” said Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque. "This may not be the best avenue. There may be other ideas that may be more effective or sound than the bill before us, but we wanted to at least start the discussion on whether or not there is a way to finance other than just private funds."

Under the proposed measure, candidates would raise preliminary “seed” money and gather a prescribed number of signatures to establish viability to receive public money. The amount a candidate could receive would vary according to the office being sought and candidates who chose not to seek public financing would face limits on their contributions. Also, a candidate who accepted public financing could be eligible for additional funds to remain competitive with an opponent soliciting private contributions.

Marty Ryan, who lobbies on social justice and civil liberties issues, expressed concern the bill could “choke off” third-party candidates and has debate provisions that may not be workable.

Adam Mason of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund favored changing the current system that relies heavily on outside spending, noting that 2012 legislative races averaged about $135,000 for Iowa Senate race and about $50,000 per Iowa House race based on January disclosure reports.

“The proliferation of corporate funding and third-party donors in our electoral system has really moved elected officials away from their citizens and their constituents and more toward their donors, and we think that your bill restores that balance,” said Amy Campbell of Iowa League of Women Voters. “We wholeheartedly support it.”The measure creates a civil right of action for citizens alleging that a candidate has violated the law. Violations of the public funding program would be an aggravated misdemeanor carrying potential penalties of up to two years in confinement and a fine of at least $625 but not more than $6,250. The bill also provides for repayment of certain excess expenditures by a candidate. Provisions of the bill would take effect at various times beginning in 2014, with the full measure in effect by Nov. 14, 2016.