Good government group proposes a new public financing system

February 27, 2019

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A good government group is proposing a public financing system for candidates seeking a seat in the Rhode Island General Assembly.

Common Cause Rhode Island said Wednesday the state has among the least competitive legislative elections in the nation and the ability to raise money is a barrier to quality candidates running for the legislature.

“We think this would help lower that barrier,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “It would change who is able to run. The system would no longer advantage those who are able to self-fund at the expense of those who aren’t.”

Marion said he worked with state lawmakers on a bill, which has now been submitted in both legislative chambers. Democratic Sen. James Sheehan, of North Kingstown, is the Senate sponsor.

“Holding elected office in state government should not be exclusively for those who are wealthy or can raise a lot of money,” Sheehan said in a statement Wednesday. “Our government is enriched when a broader set of candidates from different walks of life, experiences and perspectives participate in the decision-making process of our society.”

The proposed system is modeled after a program in Seattle where registered voters are given $25 vouchers they can donate to campaigns. Seattle says it’s the first city in the nation to try this type of public campaign financing.

In Rhode Island, qualified candidates for statewide offices are eligible for matching public funds for the general election but legislative candidates are not. The bill proposes to make public financing available through vouchers given to voters, both to legislative candidates and candidates for statewide offices in the primary.

Marion said it would be a way to counter the influence of large donations from corporations, unions, lobbying organizations and wealthy individuals, by funding campaigns with small donations and incentivizing candidates to talk to more voters to get the vouchers. The cost to the state would likely be several million dollars, depending on how many candidates would participate and how many voters would donate their vouchers, he added.

Participation would be voluntary. Candidates would have to agree to a lower contribution limit for donations raised separate from the vouchers and limit how much they contribute to their own campaigns. Gubernatorial candidates would be eligible for $500,000, candidates for other statewide offices would be eligible for $250,000 and candidates for legislative office would be eligible for $150,000.

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