As Utahns make out their federal income tax forms this year, they should pay special attention to the little box that allows citizens to check off $1 of their taxes for the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.
The fund was established after the Watergate scandal in an effort to clean up the presidential election financing. By and large, it has worked well. The fund uses tax money - but only the amount raised by the tax form check-off - to support candidates for president. It also requires that those who receive such funds refuse private contributions and abide by spending limits.Unfortunately, the fund is running out of money. Campaigns get more expensive due to inflation and other rising costs while fewer people are checking off the $1 on the tax form, even though the check-off does not increase a person's taxes or reduce any refund. The percent of taxpayers directing $1 to the fund has fallen from 29 percent in 1980 down to a present 20 percent.
The election fund is expected to be bankrupt by 1996 at the latest. There may even be a shortfall in 1992. As one key member of Congress says, "The issue is not if the fund will round out, but when."
What happens when the fund runs out of money?
One thing that should not occur is for Congress and the administration to authorize spending general fund money for elections. If enough taxpayers refuse to check off a $1 donation, the whole idea of federal funding may have to be abandoned and the system return to the bad old days.
That would be a shame, but dipping into general funds would open the door to even worse problems.
Most members of Congress are avoiding the presidential election fund issue, although they may be galvanized by the actual fact of the fund's bankruptcy. Some say that as long as voters don't seem concerned, neither are they. Others say it is up to the White House to come up with ideas, since the fund aids presidential candidates.
Yet even while the election fund is going broke, other bills are being introduced in Congress to extend the federal financing to Senate races, which have become horribly expensive, susceptible to PAC money, and even prey to the very wealthy, as witness the Keating Five problem.
In fact, some reformers would like to have federal financing of all congressional races, saying it would make elections more open to less wealthy candidates and would reduce the influence of special interests.
But let's not expand election financing spending at a time when fewer people seem willing to pay for what already exists.
There is no doubt that some type of campaign reform is needed, but dipping into the treasury is not the answer - particularly if taxpayers themselves refuse to check off a minimal $1 transfer.
Voluntary spending limits with some political party incentives for staying in those limits is one answer. Making wealthy contributors report donations would help. And so would shorter election campaigns.
Clearly, there are no easy solutions. The simplest one - use federal taxes to eliminate all private campaign financing - would also be the worst choice. There have to be better alternatives.