PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Foes of a November ballot measure that would let South Dakota voters earmark public money for political candidates are portraying what’s billed as an anti-corruption package as a waste of taxpayer dollars for the benefit of politicians.
The proposal would allow voters to give two vouchers worth $50 each to participating political candidates, with the money coming from a state fund. If approved, South Dakota would join the federal government and at least 13 states with some form of public campaign financing.
But an opposition group has launched radio ads and mailers attacking those provisions in Initiated Measure 22, arguing that residents don’t want their taxes to pay for campaigns.
“Some laws are funny. You can’t give a moose beer in Alaska. In Maine, you can’t raffle off a chicken,” a man’s voice says in the July radio ad. The ballot measure “isn’t funny,” he continues, adding: “Instead of roads, bridges and schools, our tax dollars would pay to help get politicians elected.”
Supporters say the overhaul is meant to improve transparency and help prevent corruption after two recent government-related scandals, which have included deaths, felony charges and allegations of misused funds.
The wide-ranging ballot proposal, which requires a simple majority to pass, would create an ethics commission, require additional campaign finance disclosure and bar lobbying by state officials and high-level employees for two years after exiting government.
Voters who want to use the program could give “democracy credits” to political candidates who agree to campaign contribution and spending limits. Each election year, participating legislative candidates could receive up to $15,000 in democracy credit funds, while a gubernatorial candidate could collect up to $700,000, with varying amounts for other offices.
The credits could be given directly to the candidate, to their representative or to the ethics commission. They could be delivered in person, by mail or electronically through a system to be developed by the commission.
Ben Lee, chairman of an opposition group whose partners include Americans For Prosperity-South Dakota, the state Retailers Association and the state Chamber of Commerce and Industry, calls much of the measure “a complicated monstrosity of a muddy mess.”
“Everyone understands the idea of redirecting tax dollars to political campaigns, and they don’t like it,” said Lee, who is also state director for South Dakota’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group backed by the billionaire philanthropist Koch brothers, David and Charles.
Lee also said he doesn’t think the plan would effectively reduce corruption. It’s not clear yet what opponents are spending against the measure, because they haven’t had to report fundraising, and Lee declined to disclose those details.
Don Frankenfeld, a former GOP state senator who is co-chairman of a coalition supporting the measure, said opponents want to avoid losing the influence of “big money.” Focusing on the campaign finance element is a “smoke screen” to distract voters, said measure supporter Rick Weiland, a former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate.
“It’s not mandatory, but if they want to take a little bit of the money they send to Pierre and invest it in people who they think are going to do a good job for them, that are really going to represent their interests and not just the thousand-dollar check writers, what is so awful about that?” Weiland said.
Supporters had received about $360,000 in cash and in-kind contributions by late July and spent roughly the same, Frankenfeld said. Their efforts are supported by Represent.Us, an organization working to reduce the influence of money in politics.
Supporters are pushing a similar anti-corruption plan in the state of Washington.
A Minnesota program has given voters a $50 tax refund if they contribute to candidates or political parties that adhere to spending caps. The state also offers direct public payments to qualifying candidates.
That program provided more than $500,000 in public subsidies for then-GOP governor candidate Tom Emmer in 2010. Emmer - now a congressman - narrowly lost that race to Democrat Mark Dayton, who relied heavily on his own fortune. But the subsidy was critical for Emmer’s bid, former campaign manager Cullen Sheehan said.
“I think it is an added value for candidates, certainly, that don’t have the personal resources to write their own checks,” Sheehan said.
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