It would be easy to confuse TakeItBack.org and TakeBack.org. TakeItBack.org is the website of the ballot question organization founded by liberal Democratic South Dakotan Rick Weiland to promote ballot measures to take politics back from big-money donors. TakeBack.org is the website of Take Back Our Republic, a largely conservative group dedicated to taking politics back from big-money donors.
These two groups are working together to promote Initiated Measure 22, the Anti-Corruption Act. IM 22 co-chairs Don Frankenfeld and Darrell Solberg have brought two of TakeBack.org’s leading thinkers, John Pudner and Dr. Richard Painter, to South Dakota this week to make the conservative case for IM 22.
Read that again: conservative leaders are coming to South Dakota to defend an initiative composed by a liberal Democrat against attacks from the Koch Brothers.
To confound us further, conservatives Pudner and Painter laid out their conservative case for IM 22 in an interview with liberal Dakota Free Press last night. Also joining the conversation were Republican Don Frankenfeld and Represent.us political director Dan Krassner.
Pudner has buttered his bread campainging for “conservative, reform-minded” candidates around the country, including most recently Dave Brat, who upset House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia in 2014. Over the last five years, he has seen money overwhelming elections and picking out candidates who may not be the “most articulate statesmen” but who can raise money.
Early in our conversation, Pudner attacked one of the Koch brothers’ main positioning lines against IM 22. The cards and calls from the Koch’s Americans for Prosperity say that IM 22 will cut into funding for, among other things, roads. Pudner notes that Koch Industries makes asphalt. Pudner says the Kochs will never oppose raising taxes to build more roads (and you know, Americans for Prosperity sent a flunky to the 2015 Legislature to oppose Medicaid expansion, but AFP didn’t dispatch anyone to testify against the $85-million tax increase for road construction in 2015 Senate Bill 1). Pudner argues that, whatever IM 22 might cost the general fund for public campaign financing and administration of the statewide ethics commission, IM 22 would save South Dakota much more in beating corruption in the bidding process for big projects like the asphalt we might buy from Koch plants in neighboring states.
Krassner further crushed the Kochs’ cost argument against IM22 with empirical data from a 2014 study by Indiana University: in the ten most corrupt states in the nation, including South Dakota, reducing corruption to average levels—not eliminating corruption, but just getting a reasonable grip on it—would reduce annual state spending by 5.2%.
Let’s see: our FY2017 general fund appropriations are $1.598 billion. 5.2% of that is $83 million. IM 22 appropriates a maximum of $12 million every election cycle for Democracy Credits and other expenses, and that assumes that only 22% of registered voters would choose to access their Democracy Credits. $83 million corruption savings would cover Democracy Credits for all 531,584 registered voters in South Dakota and leave another $30 million for the statewide ethics commission to enforce the campaign finance and lobbying rules… or just spend what IM 22 calls for and cut taxes by $70 million… which would pretty much put back the sales tax we had to raise to boost teacher pay this year.
Dr. Richard Painter says that campaign finance reform has been supported by conservative GOP nominees like Barry Goldwater and John McCain and should resonate with contemporary conservatives. Dr. Painter agrees that big money lures even professed conservatives into wasteful pork-barrel spending (he saw plenty of such spending during his stint as chief ethics counsel for the Bush II Administration from 2005 to 2007, during some of which period Republicans controlled the White House and Congress).
Dr. Painter also connects campaign finance reform to national security: if big corporate money dominates elections, and if big corporate money represents multinational owner and shareholder interests, then elected officials who are beholden to that big corporate money will be more inclined to leave our resources open to foreign acquisition. Let multinational corporations buy up our resources, and we become a banana republic (review the origin of the term: rich American companies dominating Central American politics). Dr. Painter says that if we don’t want the Chinese buying up our hogs and dairy and cornfields, we need measures like IM 22 to stop them from buying our elections and our elected officials.
Dr. Painter contends that social conservatives should not let the Koch brothers and other big corporate donors fool them into thinking that alliances with big money will give them access to power to pass social conservative legislation. Dr. Painter says big donors will ultimately betray social conservative allies. His primary example is abortion: he says social conservatives who view the morning-after pill as abortion will never win their point in law against big pharmaceutical corporations who stand to make billions from selling Plan-B pills. Dr. Painter extends his argument to insurance companies: big health insurance corporations can maximize profits by reducing the number of sick policyholders. If insurers can identify pregnancies that might produce children with chronic health problems, profit could motivate those insurers to cover abortion in their policies to encourage women to abort those pregnancies and save the insurers money in the long run.
Dr. Painter notes that the original Tea Party—no, not the Fox News shouters of 2010 who seem now to have collapsed into following a loud-mouth billionaire, but the real Tea Party, Boston Harbor, Founding Fathers dressing up as Indians and pitching tea—reacted to government-corporate cronyism at its worst. Just as the Founding Fathers resisted taxation without representation, Dr. Painter says today’s conservatives should support IM 22 to fight the big money rigs our election choices and denies the majority of citizens true representation.
I asked Pudner how big money works against drawing good public servants into politics. Pudner explained that three main qualities make candidates electable: problem-solving, ability to connect with voters, and ability to raise lots of money. Pudner said we still have plenty of good elected officials who love to use their skills to connect with voters and solve problems, but the “political-industrial complex” throws in with candidates who are good at raising money. True public servants then must focus on raising money just to compete and don’t get to spend as much time doing what they really love. Ultimately we end up with a system where the only people who can win elections are either the candidates who will do the big donors’ bidding or the billionaires like Donald Trump who can spend their own money. Practically excluding decent public servants of modest means from elections is bad for democracy.
Of course, the Koch brothers and other rich donors aren’t interested in real democracy. They want to control the government. As Dr. Painter pointed out, the Kochs aren’t worried about South Dakota taxpayers; they are trying to keep the majority of voters from competing with them in choosing elected officials.
Take Back Our Republic prefers a tax credit for small political contributions, but as Pudner notes, the “enlightened people of South Dakota” don’t have an income tax, so IM 22’s Democracy Credits are an acceptable alternative for our state. On Democracy Credits, Pudner offers the same argument I’ve offered since before the Kochs really started hollering: it’s taxpayer money, so why not let taxpayers decide how they want to spend it? Democracy Credits empower citizens to use their own money to support their preferred candidates and check the power of big money over our government.
Pudner says Take Back Our Republic will focus on delivering their conservative arguments to conservative South Dakota voters. Pudner’s past consulting and campaigning have identified thousands of conservative activists in South Dakota. TBOR’s intent is to equip those activists with research (like the Indiana corruption-savings study) to rebut the Koch brothers’ propaganda.
While that messaging targets conservative circles, I wondered if portraying IM 22 as a conservative measure could make Democratic supporters skittish. Frankenfeld poo-pooed that thought (as he poo-poos much of what I think). He said he senses that Democrats are pretty solidly behind IM 22 while the Koch propaganda has split Republicans down the middle. Frankenfeld says Pudner and Painter’s efforts will bring some of those Republicans back by reminding them that IM 22 fits with their basic conservative principles… and really, on basic principles like using tax dollars responsibly, stopping corruption, providing fair representation, and protecting our national security and sovereignty, don’t Republicans and Democrats agree?
In another nod to the social conservative audience, Dr. Painter often cites the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 21, the story of the widow’s mite:
There are a whole range of issues where the money is on one side and the social conservatives are in the position of — there’s a story from the Gospel of Luke of the widow who puts the few pennies in the coffers while all the rich men are standing around and pouring in lots more and Jesus says, “Well, the poor widow, her contribution is just as important if not more important.” And is that the way we’re running our democracy? I would expect the faith community to rebel against this system and to kick the moneychangers out of the temple of our democracy. This is unacceptable [Dr. Richard Painter, interview with Bill Moyers, 2016.04.20].
The idea that the least among us matters is another principle on which true conservatives and true liberals agree. The Bible, like our Constitution, is for everybody, not just the rich and powerful. That message underlies the efforts of Rick Weiland, Don Frankenfeld, John Pudner, and Dr. Richard Painter. That message is why TakeItBack.org and TakeBack.org are working together in South Dakota to beat the Koch brothers and pass Initiated Measure 22.