Commissioners Propose Expanding Public Financing for Campaigns

Two election officials on Wednesday renewed a proposal to overhaul the Watergate-era presidential public financing system, this time suggesting that candidates who take taxpayer money for the primaries get to spend at the record levels President Bush and rival John Kerry did during last year's race.

The first step for Congress is deciding whether the system should be maintained or abolished, Federal Election Commission (search) Chairman Scott Thomas and Vice Chairman Michael Toner wrote in a letter to congressional leaders. If it keeps public financing for the presidential race, the program should be substantially changed to make it more attractive to candidates, they said.

Last year's presidential race marked the first time candidates from both major parties opted out in the primaries. Bush in 2000 became the first to do so; he did so again for the 2004 race, and Democrats Kerry and Howard Dean followed suit.

"The presidential public financing system is at an historic crossroads," Toner and Thomas wrote. "If Congress does not act within the next two years, the system runs the serious risk of being totally irrelevant in the 2008 election and beyond."

Their proposal, if approved by Congress, would:

-- Raise the spending limit for candidates who take public financing in the primaries from last year's roughly $45 million to $75 million or more -- perhaps even the $250 million range. Kerry's fund raising topped $200 million and Bush's exceeded $250 million after they skipped public financing and its limits in the primaries.

-- Increase the total taxpayer money available to primary candidates to half the new spending limit. During last year's primaries, public financing offered presidential candidates a taxpayer-financed match of up to $250 for each contribution, up to just under $20 million. The Thomas-Toner proposal would increase the match to up to $500 per donation.

-- Make it harder for candidates to qualify for primary public financing (search). Currently, candidates need raise only $5,000 in each of 20 states in amounts up to $250 per donor, meaning it only takes 20 donors in each of 20 states to qualify for the taxpayer money. The commissioners propose several options, including raising the requirement to $15,000 raised in each of 20 states.

-- Make primary public financing available starting July 1 of the year before the presidential election, six months earlier than candidates get it under the current system. That would put it more in line with the current timing of primaries, the commissioners wrote.

-- Abolish state-by-state spending limits.

-- Make the full taxpayer financing that presidential nominees get for the general election available to them at the same time, rather than pinning it on the timing of their party conventions. Last year, Kerry had to make his $75 million in general-election funding stretch roughly a month longer than Bush did, because the Democratic convention was held about a month earlier than the GOP gathering.