Public Financing 

Amid all the opening salvoes of what could turn out to be a contentious and/or unproductive special session on ethics, one member of the state Senate chose to give timely exposure to what could turn out to be the diamond in the rough -- a proposal for public financing of Tennessee's elections. The maverick in question was Senator Doug Jackson, a Dickson Democrat, who delivered what appeared to be an impromptu discourse on the idea, salting his commentary with frequent variations on the phrase "Why don't we give elections back to the people?"

The cold-shower environment of this opening week of the special session in Nashville was such that most members of the ubiquitous corps of slap-on-the-back, special-interest lobbyists who usually crowd the Capitol's corridors, night and day, during a session were absent. Widely suspected, perhaps correctly, of being the villains of the piece, their ears had to be burning. And, besides that, this year the annual pre-session fund-raisers thrown by both major parties -- and including all the usual suspects among the generous givers -- were canceled.

The few lobbyists who remained on hand to look in on the relatively dull business of trying to reform Tennessee's state government were of the sort typified by Dick Williams, the genial, gnomish representative of the public-service lobby, Common Cause. Williams offered to detail his expenses long before requiring lobbyists to do so became a principal point in the ethics legislation now under consideration. (Of course, he largely works pro bono, anyhow.)

In any case, Williams was bowled over by Jackson's proposal. His eyes wide in wonder, he said afterward, "As obvious as that idea is, that's the first time I've ever heard it seriously proposed in this legislature. And I've been here a long time!"

As it turned out, Williams was not alone, either in his astonishment that the idea of public financing had been broached or in his enthusiasm for it. Members of the media and legislators themselves kept talking it up privately in the day or two following Jackson's remarks on the Senate floor. Maybe sooner or later the concept will get taken up publicly -- maybe even (dare we dream?) in the course of the present three-week special session.

Indeed, why don't we "give elections back to the people"? At a time when the servants of big corporate money continue trying to pass off their over-the-top contributions as "free speech" (an argument that has won too much support among an increasingly cynical judiciary), it is refreshing merely to hear the argument for public financing phrased so properly and precisely.

Coupled with reasonable restraints on private campaign contributions, public financing could indeed return elections to the people -- to the ordinary taxpayers who need to have some governmental decisions made in their favor once in a while. Whatever the cost, it would be a bargain -- especially compared to the present pay-as-you-go system favoring the privileged and the greedy.

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