As legislators try to figure out whether they can fix the state’s public campaign finance system before the courts kill it, state election officials are looking back at how the system worked in 2008 – auditing each legislative campaign. In the first of a two-part series on public financing, WNPR’s Jeff Cohen reports.
Advocates of the state’s citizens’ election fund say that the program succeeded in 2008 – keeping special interest money out of political campaigns by pumping public money in.
How much money? Typical senate candidates in contested races could have gotten as much as $85,000 for the general election. House candidates in the same situation could have gotten up to $25,000. That adds up to about $8 million public dollars spent on things like advertising, lawn signs, buttons, and office supplies.
State Representative James Spallone chairs the committee spearheading the effort to reform the public financing laws this year. He says the money was well spent.
"The idea of raising small contributions and receiving a grant and then focusing solely on outreach to constituents, voters, community groups and really just campaigning was just tremendous."
But how, exactly was the money spent?
That’s the question that state elections officials have been asking since the 2008 election cycle ended, performing over 340 audits – one audit for each legislative campaign. Here’s what auditors found.
“Nobody likes to be audited.”
Beth Rotman heads the state’s public campaign finance program. She says these audits see everything.
“Every campaign is going to have some small issues because the laws are lengthy, they’re complex, and even your most well-meaning campaign and your most well-meaning treasurer will of course make some mistakes.”
Take Spallone, for instance. His audit shows 57 errors in his campaign finance filings -- things like not fully reporting reimbursements.
But Spallone says most of the issues he and other candidates ran into were simply clerical.
“Some candidates have been frustrated with the audit process because they feel that they’re being required to sweat the small stuff.”
Senator Gayle Slossberg co-chairs the legislative committee with Spallone. She says the point of "sweating the small stuff" is to find waste and abuse.
"We're looking for the egregious problems, which we haven't seen even so far, you know, the theory that somebody would buy a big screen TV on the public dollar that really is not warranted for a campaign versus the, 'Oh, gee, where's the receipt for the $1.25 box of paper clips, we can't find it.' Those sorts of things."
Slossberg says she's hoping future audits will be equally rigorous, but a little less onerous.
“There’s been a large and collective groan in regards to the audits. Try to just imagine that everyone in your neighborhood suddenly got audited by the IRS. And was living with that with the letters, week after week, saying we need a few more receipts to verify this piece and a few more receipts to verify that piece.”
That’s a point that resonates with state GOP chairman Chris Healy, who wants not just the audits, but public campaign financing, to go away entirely.
"The compliance issues are ridiculous. Never has so much effort been put into something that produces so little in return."
Another thing candidates told Healy and Nancy DiNardo, his Democratic counterpart, is that the new laws made it difficult for campaigns to find treasurers.
“The paperwork is so extensive and I guess it’s also the fear of maybe going to jail if you do something wrong.”
But DiNardo says she nevertheless supports the citizens’ election fund and the efforts to reform it. And Spallone says that, when it comes to public money, extensive audits make sense.
“You don’t find big problems unless you find the small ones. Almost 100 percent of the time a clerical error or something like that means very little. But sometimes it leads to a trail of finding either a larger error or misuse.”
Of the roughly 140 campaign audits already finalized by the state elections enforcement commission, only four have been referred to the agency’s enforcement division for more investigation.
We’ll have more on one of those campaigns tomorrow.
For WNPR, I’m Jeff Cohen.