07/01/2010 02:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mo' Money, Mo' Problems: Should Colorado Have Public Financing?

Originally published at New Era News.

"The more money you have, the more free speech you can get," Jim Hoffmeister said, exasperated.

The man behind the ballot initiative to provide public financing for political candidates in the state of Colorado is in the business of reforming campaign finance law. He is spearheading Clean Campaigns Colorado, a constitutional amendment aimed at combating the influence of money in the political process.

Public financing has always been a popular road to campaign finance reform. Presidential candidate John McCain somewhat infamously chose to use public financing for his campaign in 2008. By taking the $80 million for his campaign, he hoped to avoid giving special attention to big donors. Instead, his decision put a litany of restrictions on what he could do with the money and how he could fundraise. Since Barack Obama turned down public financing, he ended up raising more money than any previous presidential candidate. While we'd like to think that money can't buy the presidency, political scientists have lamented that Obama's victory spelled the death of public financing.

Nonetheless, the proposed initiative provides public financing for candidates running for statewide offices, paid for by an annual tax increase. Initiative 53 would create a public financing fund for candidates to use. The funding would come from a $5-$10 increase on individual state income taxes, which would amount to approximately $12 million annually. Similar bills have been proposed in the state legislature, but have never succeeded.

The reason why a tax increase was chosen is because there is no money in the state budget to finance more transparent campaigns. For presidential campaigns, there is usually an optional check-off box on tax returns for people who want to donate to a public financing fund. Within the state of Colorado, there can only be 15 optional tax check-off boxes and those positions have already been filled.

New Era News spoke to Luis Toro, the director of Colorado Ethics Watch, who analyzed the proposal. He called the tax increase "a more robust funding mechanism," than an optional check-off box because it would be a guaranteed amount of money each year. The formula calculated to determine how much money a candidate opting to use public financing would receive is simple.

"We based ours on the average that it takes to win a competitive campaign for a given seat over the last two election cycles," Hoffmeister said.

If the initiative makes it onto the ballot and passes, public financing will be voluntary for candidates. The money will not come without strings attached though. To show that he or she is serious, the contender must get signatures and raise a certain amount of small contributions, with at least 10 percent from each congressional district around the state. Once she is eligible to use the funding, she may not receive money from any other sources.

Proponents hope that this would give more incentive to candidates to pay attention to constituents rather than big donors and special interests groups. Similarly, they believe that legislators will be able to legislate better because they will not have to worry as much about pissing off their biggest donors in a re-election bid.

"We need some prophetic leaders and we don't have them," Hoffmeister said. "They're so worried about being re-elected, they don't even approach the hard issues."

Read more about the controversial initiative and the Supreme Court decision that may affect its implementation at New Era News.