Reading the tea leaves of public funding applications

Hundreds are running, only Hoekstra and Bouchard have reported on 2010

LANSING – With over 500 individuals seeking state offices this election cycle, it is safe to say that candidates have already raised several million dollars this year. However, due to disgracefully lax state reporting requirements, the citizens of Michigan currently have access to 2010 fundraising data from precisely two of those candidates: U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra and Oakland County Sherriff Mike Bouchard. Hoekstra and Bouchard have filed partial fundraising reports with the Bureau of Elections in applications for gubernatorial public matching funds.

The public funding system provides gubernatorial candidates with a two-to-one match for eligible contributions of up to $100 from a person. Contributions from political action committees (PACs) and political parties are not eligible to be matched. A candidate must raise at least $75,000 in eligible contributions to qualify for public funds.

The system was designed to impose a $2 million primary election spending limit for candidates who accept public funds. However, those spending limits are waived for a participating candidate who faces an opponent who has provided at least $340,000 of his own funds to his own campaign. Since Republican candidate Rick Snyder had contributed over $2.6 million to his campaign by the end of 2009, all his primary opponents may be eligible for public funds without having to observe spending limits.

The Hoekstra campaign has filed two applications for a total of $365,717 in matching funds, based on contributions from 2,656 individuals. The Bureau ruled that $19,552 in contributions were ineligible for the match and informed the Hoekstra campaign it is eligible for $326,613.

The Bouchard campaign applied for $238,735 based on contributions from 1,712 contributors. The Bureau ruled that $22,975 was ineligible for the match and informed the Bouchard campaign it is eligible for $192,835.

Both Bouchard’s and Hoekstra’s applications included individual contributions from 2009 and 2010. Neither campaign will receive the full amount for which it is eligible, at least not initially.

The Legislature took $7 million from the public campaign fund in October 2007 to balance the FY 2008 budget, so this year’s initial primary grants will be prorated to 42 percent of the eligible amount. If the total amount for which all the candidates ultimately apply is less than the total amount available for the primary, the full amounts for which eligible candidates apply will be paid. However, those completing payments likely would be made too late to be of full utility to the campaigns.

It remains to be seen why other candidates have not filed for matching funds so far. They may be temporarily concealing the identities of their donors, or they may have ideological objections to the fund. Or, in the cases of state Sen. Tom George, Speaker of the House Andy Dillon and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, the question may be whether they have raised the $75,000 in eligible contributions to qualify.

Alternatively, Dillon and/or Bernero may be planning to exceed the $2 million primary election spending limit, and they do not have the same latitude as the Republicans to collect public funds and ignore the spending limit.

Attorney General Mike Cox has raised sufficient eligible contributions to apply for public funds, and the only question relative to his campaign’s participation is likely to be whether he is ideologically opposed to the fund. As a practical matter, it is unlikely he would leave money on the table, particularly when he could deprive his primary election opponents of a greater pro rata distribution by applying for funds himself.

As a self-funded candidate, Rick Snyder is ineligible for public funds.

The mystery surrounding gubernatorial campaign finances is symptomatic of a lax and inadequate campaign finance reporting regime. State officeholders file only an annual report in years when they are not facing the electorate. This contrasts with federal officeholders and candidates who file quarterly in off years. State candidates will file their first report for 2010, the pre-primary, on July 23rd. Federal candidates file quarterly reports, in addition to pre- and post-election reports, in election years.

“It is unconscionable to have officeholders raising millions of dollars from interest groups who are driving a policy agenda and we see only one report in 18 months,” said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “The citizens of this state have a right to know who is giving what to whom, and they shouldn’t have to wait six months to know it in an election year.”

Note to editorial writers: Two candidates who aspire to receive the Republican nomination to be secretary of state are well positioned to move legislation to address the unacceptably long gaps between state campaign finance reports. Sens. Michelle McManus and Cameron Brown are the Chair and majority Vice Chair, respectively, of the Senate Committee on Campaigns and Elections. Their inaction perpetuates the disgraceful lack of timeliness in Michigan campaign finance disclosure. Please, remind your readers that candidates should earn higher office through service to the citizens of this state.

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Press Release 2010 News