The New Campaign Finance Reform — More Of The Same

by John Marino

April 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOGov. Calderón’s newest version of campaign finance reform offers $4 million in public funding to gubernatorial candidates and allows them to raise $4 million in private financing to boot.

The reform retains an additional $3 million for each candidate to be used for media advertising.

The plan also envisions doling out $7.5 million to mayoral candidates in San Juan, Guaynabo, Carolina and Bayamón, while allowing them to raise some $4.5 million in private funds.

In all, the reform will cost Puerto Rican taxpayers $28.5 million per election, far below Calderón’s original proposal that would have included all island mayors and lawmakers in the public financing scheme and cost anywhere from $40 million to $100 million, with the estimates varying, in part, according to whether primary elections would also be included.

But the latest version, while cost-effective, raises even more questions about whether it will fulfill its original intent: to decrease candidates’ lust for raising campaign funds with an eye towards curbing the public corruption that has been linked to that practice.

The Puerto Rican Independence Party, which wants pure public financing, and the New Progressive Party, which wants pure private financing, have attacked the proposal.

The political opponents of Calderón, the Popular Democratic Party’s candidate in 2004, have also charged that the latest proposal stems more from her fears of the return to the local political arena of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló than with any desire to clamp down on the influence of campaign donors in local elections. They point to the whopping $4 million in private funds under the proposal that gubernatorial candidates could raise to argue Calderón is more interested in reelection than reform.

Because the PDP is in such better financial shape than the NPP right now, the ability to raise private funds is clearly in its favor, the critics say. Their argument was also bolstered by a proposal to put off until 2008 all public campaign financing that was apparently considered by members of the Calderón committee that drew up this latest proposal.

Copies of a draft calling for the delay were mistakenly handed out to reporters during the press conference announcing the latest proposal.

The Legislature might still kill the plan, as there are some PDP lawmakers still publicly questioning its wisdom. If lawmakers don’t pass the legislation this session, which ends in June, the reform could not apply to the 2004 elections.

But Calderón should be credited with convoking the committee that had reputable people from all political persuasions on it — until anyway former PIP electoral commissioner Damaris Mangual resigned in protest over its final proposal.

The members defend the mix of public and private financing under the plan as a way to keep the reform cost-effective, constitutional and the idea of public financing attractive for politicians. They painstakingly developed a formula that the members genuinely believe in. But it still has the ring of throwing money at a problem.

Meanwhile, the PIP’s call for pure public financing, while draped in moral terms, is also about self-survival, since it is the party that stands most to benefit from it.

The NPP’s call for pure private financing, and stronger controls on it, is more sensible, but the party, most directly tainted by previous corruption schemes, is also not above charges of acting in its own self-interest. The party should also be much more aggressive in suggesting concrete anti-corruption proposals.

Indeed, the entire campaign finance reform debate has to be seen within the context of a larger challenge to existing election laws being played out in the federal courts.

Two political parties -- the Clean Citizens Party and the Civil Action Party — have sued the State Elections Commission arguing that rules to inscribe new political parties are needlessly onerous. They complain about requirements to file signed petitions within seven days, the obligation to divide them by precincts and the condition to have them notarized.

Chief US Judge Héctor Laffitte last month deemed the rules unconstitutional because they place too big of a burden on budding political groups. The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals is currently entertaining an appeal by the SEC, which is voraciously defending its regulations as a way to weed out "fly by night" political parties.

There is some validity to its argument, but sham political parties could also be kept out of the public financing scenario by stringent supervision of campaign spending and fundraising.

The SEC’s opposition also must be seen from the perspective that on one level the entity is nothing more than an organ of the three existing political parties, all of which have a stake in keeping out any more potential rivals. And the public funding scenario only makes a closed club environment even more comforting,

The court cases suggest that more than campaign financing, it’s commonwealth politics as a whole that needs reforming.

The formation of grass-roots political parties could be one positive way to shake up the current establishment. Supporters envision parties dedicated to environmental protection, to conservative fiscal policies and a smaller role for government and taxpayer rights issues, among a myriad of other possibilities.

Today, such vital issues take a back seat to status concerns, which is a shame because they don’t have to.

Having political parties made up of all political ideologies is one way to put these issues back into the spotlight. So is separating the status issue from the administration of the commonwealth government in other ways.

Rosselló has suggested exploring the issue in the federal courts, while the PIP has called for exploring solutions through a form of a "constituents assembly." As usual, the PDP is non-committal, calling for more discussion.

Making it easier for potential rivals of the PDP, the NPP and the PIP to establish might not improve San Juan’s political landscape at all. But it certainly could not hurt.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback