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As others see it: Don't force taxpayers to subsidize campaigns

Anyone who has ever filed an income tax return in the state of Minnesota has encountered the box: Check here to donate a portion of your tax refund to the political party of your choice to help pay for election campaigns.

Fewer and fewer of us check the box — and understandably; who wants to give even a dollar or two to support more campaigning and in-your-face politics? More than 20 percent of Minnesotans checked the box in 1974, but fewer than 6 percent did so in 2011.

Did you know, though, that regardless of whether you checked any box or whether you want your tax dollars used this way or not, you’re still subsidizing political campaigns in Minnesota? The state’s campaign subsidy program distributed nearly $2.4 million to candidates for statewide offices and for the Minnesota House this year, according to data released by the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board on Tuesday. Of that, only $1.4 million came via check-offs. The rest came from all taxpayers, both the willing and unwilling, through the state’s general coffers.

That can change. In the interest of responsibly using public tax dollars, that ought to change. Participating candidates can start by accepting their share from the $1.4 million raised through check-offs and by refusing the rest. The Legislature can follow by changing the law so the program is funded through voluntary donations only. Candidates and lawmakers can show themselves as responsible stewards of the public’s money through such actions.

This notion of public subsidies for campaigns did start with seemingly good intentions in the 1970s. Candidates who sign on to receive cash from the program have to agree to abide by campaign-spending limits. In this year’s race for governor, for example, incumbent Mark Dayton and his challenger, Jeff Johnson, will be limited in base spending to about $3.6 million. That’s far less than other gubernatorial races in other states. In Florida, for example, as Minnesota Public Radio reported this week, Gov. Rick Scott already has spent more than $100 million.

Well-intended or not, Minnesota’s program to funnel tax dollars to candidates and their campaigns should be entirely voluntary. ...It should tap willing taxpayers only.