Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Let's Keep Subsidized Religion Out of Politics!

This week's column is part of a long-running battle between my editor and me over Arizona's "Clean Elections" system of public financing for campaigns. You can read the Goldwater Institute column here, my column here, and the response from the Tribune's editor the very same day that my column ran here. I hope you enjoy the wolf-sheep line in bold.

East Valley Tribune, Jul. 11, 2004

The Tribune, and its tax-deductible “nonpartisan” friends at the Goldwater Institute, detest Arizona’s Clean Elections system, and while consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, on this issue just watch how very inconsistent these minds can be.

For example, note what Clean Elections opponents call in this argument, but not in others, “public money.” This past Friday, the Goldwater Institute’s guy lit into Gov. Janet Napolitano, a supporter of the voter-approved Clean Elections program, who said that “It’s not like your income tax money is going into the Clean Elections fund.”

According to the Goldwater Institute representative, this is wrong. Taxpayer money does so go into Clean Elections, he wrote, because it’s funded partially by “tax payments that tax filers can redirect from the General Fund into the Clean Elections account. That is, money that would otherwise be in the General Fund to pay for everything from highway patrolmen to the classroom goes into a fund to finance politicians’ campaigns.”

Two quick appetizers before our entrĂ©e: First, Clean Elections is also funded by surcharges on parking tickets and other fees, [ADD: and also by a tax-return checkoff that's legally identical to the tax credit,] but they’re legally severable, so let's concentrate on the tax credit mechanism generating funds which the Goldwater guy says are also “taxpayer money.”

Second, it’s not like the Goldwater Institute has ever supported spending more money on “everything from highway patrolmen to the classroom.” Their entire reason for existence is spending less on such things. When the Goldwater Institute frets about underfunding public services, it’s like the wolf complaining that we taxpayers really aren’t doing enough to support sheep.

But today’s main course is that if the “tax payments that tax filers can redirect from the General Fund into the Clean Elections account” is public money, then so are other tax credits under Arizona law -- including one of The Tribune’s favorites, the private school tax credit.

Under Arizona law, taxpayers can make donations to private schools, which are overwhelmingly religious in nature, and get a similar dollar-for-dollar tax credit. The credit reduces a taxpayer’s state income tax liability by the same amount as the donation, exactly like the Clean Elections credit.

Private school boosters, like The Tribune, get around the Arizona Constitution’s ban on aid to religious institutions (more restrictive than the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause) by claiming that the tax credit mechanism really doesn’t involve taxpayer money. Then, after pausing briefly to catch their breath, the same people, like The Tribune, claim that the Clean Elections tax credit mechanism is taxpayer money.

In both cases the taxpayer is essentially redirecting money that otherwise would be in the General Fund, in exactly the same way. But it’s not public money when The Tribune likes the program; it’s only public money when The Tribune doesn’t like the program.

You should know that Clean Election opponents aren’t making the “it’s taxpayer money” argument in court. The courts so far have rejected challenges to the private school tax credit, and Clean Elections opponents’ lawyers are smart enough to know that if they won the public money argument, it would doom their beloved private school credit, too. The opponents are instead making this argument only in newspaper columns and political campaigns, where apparently a different standard of truthfulness applies.

So in this case, you’ll have to be the judge. Either Gov. Napolitano was right, Clean Elections funding isn’t taxpayer money, or else The Tribune supports the unconstitutional use of taxpayer money for religious institutions. Either a tax credit mechanism involves the use of public money, or it doesn’t. And if The Tribune keeps making the “it’s taxpayer money” claim, then you’ll know exactly how weak its arguments against Clean Elections really are.


Lippard said...

But as Tim Keller pointed out to me when I challenged the Institute for Justice's argument on this at my blog, there is a difference--Clean Elections money goes from the Treasury to Clean Elections at the request of the taxpayer checking the box for the credit, with no money coming from the taxpayer. With the school tuition organization tax credit, by contrast, the school tuition organization gets money directly from the taxpayer, who then claims it as a credit on his return.

In the clean elections case, the state doesn't get the $5 from the taxpayer AND it has to fork out $5 to clean elections. In the school tuition organization case, the state doesn't get the money from the taxpayer, but it doesn't have to pay anything to the school tuition organization, either--that money comes from the taxpayer, not the treasury.

Sam said...

It's a pretty thin distinction. So if the statute authorized taxpayers to make contributions instead of a nonprofit, which then gave money to participating candidates, the issue would go away?