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Campaign contribution by tax checkoff; Does it make elections cleaner?

If every American would chip in just one dollar, next year's presidential campaign could be substantially funded without contributions from influence-seeking special interests.

As improbable as such an idea may sound, it serves as a reminder that full public funding of White House candidates is within reach.

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Millions of citizens across the nation are already helping bankroll state and national campaigns through annual donations, and without its costing them a dime.

By simply checking a box on their federal income tax forms they earmark a dollar - two dollars in the case of joint returns - of what they owe or have paid Uncle Sam for a special fund that aids in financing presidential campaigns. Last year 27 percent of all taxpayers contributed in this way.

While it is uncertain how much might be available to aid 1984 presidential aspirants, the fund as of Jan. 1, 1982, stood at $153.5 million. Experts anticipate that another $35 million to $40 million will come in over the next several weeks through 1982 tax returns.

This would ensure there would be enough on hand to provide public financial aid next year at 1980 support levels, when $188 million was given through the Federal Election Commission to various candidates for nomination and the election.

There is strong support from Common Cause and others for expanding the federal income tax checkoff system to help fund congressional elections. This would reduce often heavy candidate reliance on contributions from various special-interest groups. But such proposals appear to be making little headway.

Somewhat brighter, however, may be the prospects for public campaign financing at the state level.

Much could depend on improvement of economic conditions, observes Herbert E. Alexander, director of the Los Angeles-based Citizens' Research Foundation. ''It is hard for governors and legislatures to initiate new public funding (through taxpayer checkoffs) at a time when they are short of tax dollars and state budgets are having to be cut,'' he continues.

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Dr. Alexander, whose nonpartisan organization studies the role of money in the political process, points out that over the past decade 17 states have put public-funding measures on their books and no two are the same in either size or scope.

The newest of these financing statutes, passed last September in California, does not involve a checkoff arrangement but instead gives taxpayers the option of contributing to campaign financing of one of the two major political parties by adding $1, $5, $10, or $25 to what they owe the state in taxes.

Efforts are afoot in at least 10 states to provide some measure of direct or indirect public funding of election campaigns. Besides California, where the big push is for a checkoff arrangement to replace the new add-on measure, public political-funding legislation is pending or due to be filed shortly in Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, and West Virginia.

In New York, where nearly $24 million, a record, was spent in the 1982 governorship campaign - $14 million of it by a single candidate - lawmaker interest in at least a modest step toward public financing is building.

Although unwilling to speculate whether any such proposals will pass, James Diamond, executive director of New York Common Cause, says the political climate for such action is ''definitely improving.''

He notes that in three of the past four years such legislation made it through the state Assembly but fell victim to insufficient support in the Republican-controlled Senate.

An Illinois push for a $1 checkoff option on state income tax payments is similarly being sparked by heavy spending in last year's governorship campaign, in which the Republican and Democratic candidates raised and shelled out a combined $6 million.

''We came close in the Senate in 1981 and there certainly is a lot more interest now,'' says Harriett McCall, the state's Common Cause director, who favors initially restricting the public funding to the gubernatorial campaign.

She and other boosters of such legislation cite as ''especially successful'' the New Jersey public-financing law under which candidates for governor receive matching sums, on a 2-to-1 basis, for small private donations. In 1981, some $9 million kicked in by Garden State taxpayers through their income tax checkoff aided 11 candidates for governor.

Similarly acclaimed is the system in Michigan, where gubernatorial candidates last year received $5.68 million. Only private contributions of $200 or less are matched, explains Nancy Ring of Michigan Common Cause, who adds that the system ''works well'' and has meant that ''special interests no longer fund candidates for governor.''

About 26 percent of Michigan taxpayers designate that $2 of their tax liability go to financing of the gubernatorial campaign.

Besides Michigan and New Jersey, nine other states have programs for raising campaign funds for certain offices through the checkoff system. They are Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Utah, and Wisconsin. Oklahoma also has a public-funding measure on its books, but litigation has stalled its implementation for several years.

Four other states - Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, and Montana - have taken a different direction, with considerably less success. Instead of a $1 or $2 checkoff, taxpayers wishing to participate in the program add an additional $1 or $2 to their annual state income tax payment.

In Maine, for example, only 0.5 percent of those filing tax returns chipped in with the voluntary contribution in 1981. In Massachusetts, a similar add-on measure yielded the state slightly more than $102,000, with 2.9 percent of the taxpayers donating to the public-financing coffers.

Several proposals to switch Massachusetts to $1 checkoff arrangement are under consideration. Most would follow the 1981 recommendations of a special commission that investigated influence peddling and corruption in the handling of state contracts.

n Maryland, a $2 add-on measure has been on the books since 1974, but nary a penny has been allotted to any candidate. The legislature has twice postponed using the money, with latest deferral until 1986. The program's future is in jeopardy. Now at issue in Maryland is what to do with the funds accumulated over the past several years, which as of Jan. 31 totaled $1.22 million.

Ricki Wadsworth of the state's Common Cause says, ''The money should be used to fund the 1986 gubernatorial campaign. Eventually what Maryland needs is public financing through a checkoff, not add-on, system, but there is not the support for that now.''

Backers of public financing in California, like Walter Zelman, executive director of that state's Common Cause, are expected to throw most of their support behind a proposal, now being drafted, for a tax checkoff system to aid legislative candidates.

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