The Supreme Court's assault on efforts to limit the toxic effect of money on elections in this country continued this week with the decision to strike down an important provision of Arizona's public financing of elections.
Under the Arizona law, candidates who elected to have their campaigns publicly financed were eligible for additional so-called "trigger" funds if their privately financed opponents' fundraising exceeded a certain amount. The effort was to keep the playing field somewhat level.
But the court's conservative majority didn't see it that way. They saw the extra money as an attempt to quash free speech — as a powerful disincentive against privately funded candidates who, if they were to raise too much money, would then face stiffer opposition.
Once again, the court seems comfortable only with campaign finance laws that preserve a status quo where money is equated with free speech. Much like they did in the Citizens United ruling, the justices have sided with large corporations and other deep-pocketed groups over the rights of citizens who just want elected officials to be less beholden to special interests.
Still, there is a ray of hope in the court's ruling. The justices did not strike down the concept of public financing of campaigns, only this particular element of it. Indeed, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that the court's intention was not to "call into question the wisdom of public financing as a means of funding political candidacy."
That's critically important. Voluntary public financing of elections remains the best chance available to make elected officials less beholden to special interests, whether they are corporate or labor, Democratic-leaning or Republican-friendly.
In Maryland, where legislation installing a system modeled after Arizona's has been kicked around in recent years, the ruling gives hope that the General Assembly may yet find its way on this issue. Certainly, recent public corruption cases, including the prosecution of former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson and Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, would have sensitized Annapolis to at least the perception of a problem.
What would be required? Only that candidates for the General Assembly be given the option — if they are able to collect some minimum number and amount of private donations to demonstrate the legitimacy of their candidacy — to have their campaigns funded by taxpayer dollars and limited to a set amount.
The chief setback of the court's ruling would now appear to make that option more expensive. Instead of a trigger fund, the system will simply have to provide sufficient funding to each qualifying candidate across the board to ensure that person will be heard (whether or not a well-funded opponent enters the race).
Sadly, it's unlikely that such legislation will go very far next year in Annapolis. The Senate has blocked it in the past, and Maryland, like other states, faces continued budget deficits. Politicians are fearful that public financing will be perceived — instead of as a good government initiative — as a selfish grab for taxpayer dollars.
Considering how lawmakers are loath to cede the power of incumbency, public skepticism may even be justified. You can bet that any bill that would appeal to the majority Democrats in the State House would tilt in their its favor (ensuring, for instance, that not every Tom, Dick or Harry could qualify to run against them in 2014).
Nevertheless, the decision should stir voters to press their elected officials for genuine campaign finance reform that might temper the inequities that the court has worsened. If not public financing, what about more disclosure? Or realistic limits? In Maryland, that might mean closing one of the more egregious loopholes, which allows developers to give virtually unlimited amounts through limited liability corporations.
There is no shortage of good ideas to return power to the voting public. What the country lacks are people in power, whether in Washington or the state capitals, willing to challenge what dissenting Justice Elena Kagan called the "stranglehold of special interests on elected officials."