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Presidential Funding Reform Proposed

With at least three major presidential candidates opting out of the public financing system for the 2004 elections, key reformers in the House and Senate on Friday unveiled legislation aimed at revamping the presidential funding system.

“Unfortunately, the evolution of the primary election process, particularly the front-loading of decisive primaries, and the emergence of candidates able to raise money far in excess of the primary election spending limits have exposed the weaknesses of the current system,” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) said in a joint statement Friday.

Their Presidential Funding Act of 2003 would take effect for the 2008 election and increase fourfold the 1-to-1 match of public funding of the first $250 of an individual’s total contribution to a primary candidate.

It would also eliminate the state-by-state primary spending limits and increase the overall primary spending limit from its current level of approximately $45 million to $75 million for candidates who “opt in” to public financing.

It would also increase the requirements to qualifying for public funding in a primary. Currently, a candidate must raise $5,000 in at least 20 different states in amounts of $250 per contributor to qualify for funds. Adjusting for inflation, the new system would require a candidate to raise $15,000 in each of 20 states — and the starting date for payment of public funds would be moved from Jan. 1 of the election year to July 1 of the year preceding the presidential election.

The bill also would require a candidate to opt in to the public financing system for their primary in order to be eligible to receive it in the general election and double the limit for coordinated spending by a national party on behalf of its candidate from about $15 million to $30 million.

Providing another incentive for participation, the new plan would double the public funds available to a candidate — to a total of $150 million indexed for inflation — if an opponent who has opted out in the general election raises or spends more than one-third above the combined primary and general election spending limits.

Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer praised the legislation, arguing that it would “revitalize the presidential financing system and restore the ability of candidates to opt into the system and still run competitive races for the presidency in the primaries and the general election.”

Earlier this year, along with Democrat Scott Thomas, Michael Toner, a Republican member of the Federal Election Commission, developed a similar bipartisan package of legislative changes to overhaul the public financing system.

Their plan would raise the primary spending limit — from $45 million to about $75 million — to match the general election spending limit. They would also increase the total amount of primary matching funds that each candidate who participates in the system could receive to half of the newly raised primary spending limit, increasing the amount of public money available per candidate from less than $20 million today to about $37.5 million.

Thomas and Toner also proposed doubling the maximum match on contributions from $250 to $500 per donor and tighten the eligibility requirements for presidential candidates to obtain public funds.

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