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The Planet
June 1999 Volume 6, Number 5

WANTED: Clean Money for Clean Elections

by Dan Sullivan

Public campaign financing will eliminate the influence of donors who want to weaken environmental laws, and it will shift power back to voters and volunteers.

Sierra Club chapters and reform advocates in several states are promoting a new way to finance political campaigns: "Clean Money." The core concepts of the Clean Money proposals are public financing for political campaigns and voluntary limits on campaign spending.

"Congress submits to the pressure of timber, oil, chemical, agribusiness and other big-money interests by trying to weaken environmental safeguards," said Sierra Club President Chuck McGrady. "The main reason many politicians side with the polluters is their never-ending need for campaign cash. Public campaign financing will eliminate the influence of donors who want to weaken environmental laws, and it will shift power back to voters and volunteers."

Last February, the Sierra Club Board of Directors adopted a policy supporting public financing and spending limits in congressional campaigns. The Club works on the issue with the Washington, D.C., lobbying group Public Campaign, which named the Clean Money proposal.

In 1996, Maine became the first state to enact full public financing for candidates who demonstrate grassroots support and agree to spending limits. The new system will finance the Maine state legislative elections next year, and the Club's Maine Chapter is working with Maine Citizens for Clean Elections to ensure the system will be a success.

Clean Money advocates scored major victories last year in Arizona and Massachusetts when voters approved Clean Elections initiatives. The Massachusetts initiative depends on legislative action to provide funding, so the Clean Elections coalition is now focusing intense grassroots pressure on lawmakers to include at least $10 million in the next state budget to fund the 2002 state elections, when the new system takes effect.

The Florida Chapter made Clean Money campaign reform a legislative priority for 1999. "We will never stop urban sprawl, continued weakening of growth-management laws, toxic pollution and selling of our natural resources unless we elect lawmakers who have not been bought," said Helen Spivey, Florida Chapter issue chair.

Club activists are also working on the issue in Missouri, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Michigan and North Carolina. "If we can demonstrate successful comprehensive reform in several states, that puts us in a much better position to get reform in federal campaigns as well," said Club Political Director Daniel J. Weiss.

At the federal level, the Sierra Club advocates eliminating "soft money" donations to political parties as a key step toward comprehensive campaign-finance reform. Soft money can be used for party-building activities - but not for candidates' campaigns. Campaign contributions are strictly limited by federal law, but these limits don't apply to soft money. Campaign managers quickly learned to use these less restricted funds for activities that built support for individual candidates as well as their political parties - thereby effectively evading spending and contribution limits.

Soft-money fund-raising mushroomed in the 1990s, particularly in presidential election years. "If we do not want the presidential election process to become as dominated by the business sector as the congressional process has already become, we need to close the soft-money loophole," said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.

The Sierra Club supports four congressional proposals for campaign-finance reform. H.R. 417, sponsored by Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin Meehan (D-Mass.), and S. 26, sponsored by John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) are very similar; they abolish soft money, encourage voluntary limits on personal spending by candidates and strengthen enforcement of federal election laws.

The Club also supports a more comprehensive reform similar to the Clean Money program - H.R. 1739, introduced by John Tierney (D-Mass.), and S. 982 introduced by Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.). These bills propose that candidates who voluntarily elect to abide by the Clean Money rules (like adopting strict spending and contribution caps) would receive public campaign financing along with big discounts on postage rates and television advertisements.

Dan Sullivan is chair of the Sierra Club Political Committee's Campaign Finance Reform Task Force.

Go on to the next article, "Build Support for 'Resources 2000".

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