Good-government advocates have hoisted Clean Elections programs as the next banner of political reform.
But critics have, so far, staunched the nationwide spread of such programs, which are designed to provide full public funding for campaigns.
Clean Elections programs were proposed in 27 states this year.
But of those, the proposals were defeated in 10 states. Action is pending or was postponed in 15 other states.
A plan to extend New Mexico’s Clean Elections program, from a small regulation commission to statewide judicial candidates, became law in April.
Clean Elections has gained a foothold since Maine launched the first program in 1996.
Three states — Maine, Arizona and Connecticut, which starts its program next year — offer broad public financing for political campaigns. New Jersey is one of four states with limited programs.
Jennie Bowser, policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a state policy analysis group in Denver, said Clean Elections have become the reform issue du jour for state lawmakers.
But Bowser said the Clean Elections programs have more recently run into partisan resistance from Republicans, who object on philosophical grounds.
“It’s a fundamental difference on whether it is appropriate to use public money to pay for campaigns or not,” Bowser said. “But once these programs do get established, Republicans do participate.”
Bowser said the program itself — with bureaucracy needed to oversee new campaign rules — is also a hurdle to their approval.
“It’s a big, complicated program with a high price tag, and it takes political will to wade into it,” she said.
Unlike other public funding programs — which give money to candidates but let them raise money privately as well — Clean Elections programs require candidates to swear off private funding. They are funded by taxpayer dollars, criminal and traffic fines and other public money, such as the sale of unclaimed property.
Clean Elections follow a common format: Candidates gather a large number of small contributions to show they have a base of support, then they collect public funds on which to campaign for office.
The candidates receive more public funding if their opponent raises private money.
Among active programs, Maine and Arizona offer Clean Elections money to candidates for governor, state offices, such as attorney general, and the state legislatures. Connecticut will join those two states with a broad $17 million Clean Elections program for state lawmakers in the next year.
Vermont has a Clean Elections program for gubernatorial candidates.
North Carolina and New Mexico are using Clean Elections programs for statewide judicial races. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer has proposed a Clean Elections format for judicial elections in that state as well.
Most of the states with programs have campaign costs far below New Jersey, where millions might be spent on a single state Senate seat.
Maine paid for the campaigns of 371 candidates for governor and state legislative seats in 2006. That’s 70 percent of the candidates, which received a total of $6.9 million for the primary and general election, or an average of $18,550 apiece.
But that hasn’t stopped private campaign contributions there. Total private spending by Maine political action committees — typically run by the party organizations, not candidates — has increased by more than a third since 2002, to $4.8 million last year. Both 2002 and 2006 were gubernatorial election years in Maine.
Arizona spent $9.4 million in 2006 to pay for campaigns for governor, seven statewide offices and the state legislature.
Sean Parnell, president of the Center for Competitive Politics in Washington, a lobbying group that opposes campaign finance reform, predicted that Clean Elections will fall from favor once taxpayers understand they will have to finance all of the campaigns, even ones they disagree with.
Besides, he said, there will always be ways to move money around campaign finance regulations.
“There will always be an opportunity to game any system we have,” Parnell said. “The question is: Will we have a system that suppresses political speech? Or will we have one that allows for the greatest amount of political speech?”