Against the odds: Morrissette pushes for taxpayer financing of election campaigns

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published 28-Feb-2011

State Rep. Richard Morrissette, an Oklahoma City Democrat, recently kicked off a push for his House Bill 1537, a proposal for public (taxpayer) financing of elections through small grants.
Along with several other speakers, Morrissette expressed “strong opinions” about the U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down many federal limits on campaign finance.  The court’s ruling, equating financial contributions with political speech, was deemed offensive by several speakers at the Friday afternoon (Feb. 25) “kick-off” in a House meeting room at the Oklahoma state Capitol.
Rep. Morrissette’s proposal has been dubbed a “voter-owned elections” proposal, and would carry the official title of “Oklahoma Public Campaign Finance Act.” It would allow candidates who gather signatures equal to 2 percent of voters in a district, and who raised $200 on their own, to access a tax-funded campaign fund. Candidates could get a 6-1 match for that seed money, or $1,200, in Morrissette’s plan.
Michael McNutt of The Oklahoman reported Saturday that prospects for Rep. Morrissette’s bill are fading fast. State Rep. Gary Banz, chairman of the House Rules Committee, said he would not hear the bill this year, but that it might be considered next year.
At Friday’s Capitol event, Morrissette told CapitolBeatOK and other attendees, “Gary Banz is a friend of mine, but we disagree on this.” He is hoping to persuade a majority on the Rules panel to give his bill a hearing. He said he would encourage Banz not to exercise “authoritarian power” to keep the bill from being heard.
Morrissette lamented events unfolding in City Council races here in the state’s Capitol city. With the election scheduled for tomorrow (Tuesday, March 1), all four contests this year have attracted significant spending, including at least two independent expenditures of the sort allowed under the Citizens United decision. Morrissette said the precedent from that case is “drowning out the voices of common citizens.”
Several speakers assailed U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, claiming that they had conflicts of interest behind their decisions citing the First Amendment and precedents as a basis for tossing out federal election regulations enacted in recent decades.
One speaker asked, “Why are we allowing warlords and dictators in the form of big corporations” in elections. She continued, “We should be contacting our legislators and saying ‘Stop it – we want our elections back!’” The comments received the strongest applause of the day from the audience of about 20 participants. Other speakers included Mark Burkett, who read a statement of support for Morrissette’s bill.
Richard Hilbert, board member for Oklahoma Common Cause, said the group was “solidly behind … the Voters-Owned Elections Act.” He said the support came “simply because we want our elected officials to owe their allegiance to all Oklahomans, not just to those who give them money.” Hilbert pointed to Common Cause’s longstanding support for public financing of campaigns. Common Cause was a key advocate in establishment of the state Ethics Commission and campaign finance disclosure provisions in Oklahoma.
Joyce Collard read a supportive statement from Deborah Langley, president of Oklahoma’s League of Women Voters, including this summary of the League’s official position: “The League believes that the methods of financing political campaigns should ensure the public’s right to know, combat corruption and undue influence, enable candidates to compete more equitably for public office and allow maximum citizen participation in the political process.”
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law submitted a statement to support Morrissette’s effort, saying the bill was “a way to restore trust between government and the voting public who have grown wary of big money elections.”
Also addressing Morrissette’s kickoff gathering were Chad Cox, a Cleveland County Democratic official, and Jo Davis of Pottawatomi County Democrats. Also submitted was a statement from Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Public Campaign in Washington, D.C. He praised the Public Campaign Finance Act of 2011 as way to give “everyday Oklahomans a greater voice in the electoral process and bring a state government that is truly of, by and for the people.”
Although not present for Friday’s event, Norman City Council member Tom Kovach submitted a statement saying he supported “this worthy cause. Even at the most basic level, local government, we have witnessed an explosion in the cost of campaigns. The price we pay for this is that many good and qualified people choose not to run.” He argued passage of the Morrissette bill would “restore us to the form of government envisioned by our forefathers.”
Morrissette refuses to give up, despite the long odds against his bill. He kicked off Friday’s rally, and insists this is an idea whose timing is coming. He wants to get “average folks that are interested in running for office [who]  don’t feel comfortable going out soliciting large amounts of money from large donors, corporations, unions, wealthy people. Instead of spending time raising money, they’re spending time talking to their constituents.”
Laws providing full tax funding of some or all elections have been enacted in Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and Vermont, according to the National Conference State Legislatures. Partial taxpayer financing of elections exists in Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Rhode Island, according to a summary Morrissette distributed at the event.