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3/12/2019 Kislak bill would create more robust public campaign financing
STATE HOUSE – Rep. Rebecca Kislak has introduced legislation to overhaul Rhode Island’s system for public campaign financing to better enable ordinary citizens to run and to shift power toward the general electorate.

The bill (2019-H 5726), which was developed with the good-government group Common Cause, would allow legislative candidates access to public campaign financing for the first time, and create “democracy vouchers” that voters could use to direct public campaign financing to the candidates of their choice. It would also require participating candidates to raise significant small donations and participate in debates to be eligible for funding.

“I see this proposal as a way of democratizing campaign finance, giving all voters, not just those with deep pockets, greater power to influence campaign spending. When more people are involved in our democracy, and in more ways, our government is more responsive and better for all of us. This is another way to help increase citizen engagement in our state government,” said Representative Kislak (D-Dist. 4, Providence). 

Rhode Island currently has a system that provides matching funds to candidates for statewide office: governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and general treasurer. Representative Kislak’s bill changes that program in light of the Citizens United court decision, eliminating the total spending cap to which participants are subject. The change would help participants whose opponents are being promoted by large independent expenditures not subject to contribution limits. It does not, however, lift the spending cap for the governor, since that one is mandated by the state constitution.

The legislation creates a second type of funding, a voucher program, that would also be available to legislative candidates as well as statewide office candidates.

Under that program, all Rhode Island voters would receive an equal number of “democracy vouchers” that they could assign to candidates of their choice. The funding could be used for primary races as well as the general election, for a total of up to $1 million for gubernatorial candidates, and up to $500,000 for general office and legislative candidates.

In order to receive funds from the voucher program, candidates would have to raise a certain amount of funding privately – half of which must be from their own districts, in the case of legislative candidates – to show they have viable public support. They would also agree to limit the amount of their own money they contribute to their campaigns. (No more than $75,000 per election cycle for gubernatorial candidates, $18,750 for other statewide office candidates and $5,000 for legislative candidates). Additionally, participants would agree to participate in at least two debates before a primary and two before a general election. They must also adhere to lower contribution limits for individuals and political action committees — $500, instead of the $1,000 allowed under law.

Rhode Island is currently one of 14 states that offers some sort of public elections funding, and if the legislation passes, Rhode Island would join Arizona, Connecticut and Maine in offering funding to legislative candidates as well.

The bill is based on a model implemented in Seattle in 2017. That program resulted in twice as many people contributing using vouchers than the number who made private contributions. A study found the pool of those using the vouchers was also more representative of the electorate than that of those who gave private contributions.

The bill would better enable a wider variety of Rhode Islanders to run for public office, while also create a system where candidates have incentive to look to a more diverse group — the entire electorate — for funding, said Representative Kislak. She called the voucher system “an investment in democracy.”

“When more people participate, our government is more responsive. I’m committed to ensuring people’s voices are heard by our government, and a financing system that puts the in the hands of the people is a way we can help make that happen,” said Representative Kislak, who added that she believes voucher program could also have a positive effect on civic engagement.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause, said the fundamental shift the bill makes in campaign financing will better serve Rhode Island and its citizens.

“Common Cause is committed to having a campaign finance system that focuses on the voters, not the biggest donors Rhode Island. We are excited to work with Representative Kislak to propose an innovative expansion of Rhode Island’s system of public financing of elections.”

Sen. James C. Sheehan (D-Dist. 36, North Kingstown, Narragansett) has introduced companion legislation (2019-S 0457) in the Senate.

For more information, contact:
Meredyth R. Whitty, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 222-1923