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Opting out of public financing

Tax form

TEXT OF STORY

SCOTT JAGOW: For your sake, I'm hoping taxes are all done and they'll be no need to scramble today. Question though: Did you check the little box that asks whether you want $3 to go to the presidential election fund? For most people, as John Dimsdale reports, the answer is no.


JOHN DIMSDALE: These days, fewer than 1 in 10 taxpayers check the box for financing presidential campaigns.

Begun as a Watergate reform to reduce the corrupting influence of money, taxpayer participation has been on a steady decline since nearly 29 percent checked the box in 1981.

IRS spokesman Eric Smith says it's not like a taxpayer could miss it.

ERIC SMITH: It's been right on the front of the return, right below the name and address section. It's right above the filing status section. Certainly if you're doing a paper return, it's pretty hard to miss.

Taxpayers aren't the only ones abandoning the public financing system. All the major candidates have opted out of the voluntary limits on fundraising for the 2008 primaries. And possibly, for the first time, in the general election as well.

Former Federal Election Commission chairman Michael Toner supports public financing, but doesn't blame the candidates.

MICHAEL TONER: The cost of running a national campaign during the primaries and the ability to raise money far beyond the spending limits . . . causing candidates to decide to opt out.

Toner is backing congressional legislation to raise the spending limits and matching funds from the government. The bill would boost the tax form check-off from $3 to $10.

BRAD SMITH: The last time they raised the check-off amount, participation dropped substantially. And I suspect that will happen again.

Brad Smith is another former FEC chairman. He thinks the more money politicians spend on campaigning, the more voters learn about the candidates.And it shouldn't be taxpayer money. He's opposed to public financing.

BRAD SMITH: Perhaps the best thing for Congress to do, if not repeal the law, would be to simply let it wither away.

If no candidate taps the presidential campaign fund this election, the $50 million taxpayers earmark for public financing every year will build up for the 2012 campaign.

That's quite a reversal of fortune for a fund that used to have to give candidates IOUs until enough taxpayers checked enough boxes.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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