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Friday, January 28, 2005

Nebraska Legislature to Address Candidate's Shuck-n-Jive

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As Kevin O'Hanlon of the Associated Press reports in the Lincoln Journal Star, the Nebraska Legislature took up discussion this week of a proposal by Sen. Chris Beutler to tighten the state's Campaign Finance Limitation Act, a novel and interesting approach to public financing.

The Act provides a system of voluntary public financing for candidates who agree to abide by a spending limit, who raise 25% of that limit from private donors, and who face an opponent who has opted out of public financing and plans to outspend the limit. For the candidates who meet these qualifications, there are public funds available to make up the difference between the spending limit and their opponent's estimated spending.

In other words, there is not much incentive to opt out of the spending limits, because your opponent will get a dollar for every dollar you raise over the spending limit if you do.

Despite this, Nebraska Board of Regents candidate David Hergert opted out of the public financing in his successful 2004 bid for the Board. However, because Hergert lowballed his expenditures, his opponent, who had agreed to the spending limits, was shortchanged of at least $15,000 in public funds. Hergert also apparently violated the limit on loans a candidate may take out.

Nebraska's law requires candidates to maintain their spending within 5% of their estimates (with chances to amend those estimates along the way) or face a $1,000 fine for going over. In this context, a potential fine of a few thousand dollars was obviously not enough to prompt Mr. Hergert into following the state law. In order to give the law any teeth whatsoever, a stiffer penalty is in order to discourage candidates from playing loose with the rules.

As Sen. Beutler stated:
You don't want to set rules where it's no big thing for somebody to break them and get the advantage. At that point, they could simply make the economic calculation that, 'I'll make sure I win the race and spend a few thousand more (in campaign finance fines.)'

If something is important enough to write into law - like defending our democracy against the encroachment by powerful wealthy interests - it is important enough to enforce. As we reported earlier this week, Arizona's Clean Elections law actually provides for the removal from office for a candidate who violates the spending limits in its voluntary public financing program. If a candidate wins an election because they cheat, this seems like an appropriate penalty.



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