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The Planet
From the Editor

Getting Even

by John Byrne Barry

"Evening the playing field" is such an overworked political cliché that it's easy to forget what an apt metaphor it is. Especially when it comes to campaign finance.

Every two years, the Sierra Club fights to get environmental champions elected to public office. At the same time, some of the most powerful polluters in the world - like the oil and timber industries - are working to get their friends into office. But they have an advantage - ample money to disproportionately influence who runs for office, who gets elected and which issues dominate the political agenda.

Nonetheless, the Club and its allies have defeated two dozen anti-environmental senators and representatives in the last two election cycles.

But it's like playing soccer on a field tilted downhill. We have to defend the goal at the bottom of the hill. And struggle uphill to score.

In this case there's more at stake - sorry, soccer fans - than just a game. For starters, there's clean air, clean water and wildlands for future generations.

In the 1998 election cycle, polluting industries gave more than $60 million in political contributions; oil and gas interests alone contributed $33.5 million. Timber-related political action committees gave $4.5 million, and the livestock and poultry industries gave $3.5 million.

With that kind of money changing hands, it's not surprising that 37 U.S. senators received a score of 0 (out of 100) on the 1999 League of Conservation Voters Scorecard. More than one-third of our senators failed to cast a single vote on behalf of the environment last year.

This fall, voters in Missouri and Oregon will have the opportunity to offset the influence of special-interest money and vote for voluntary campaign-finance initiatives that would provide public funds to candidates for state office. The Missouri initiative would set up a system of public financing paid for by a tax increase levied on large corporations. Candidates who collect a specified quantity of $5 contributions and reject other private contributions would qualify for public financing ranging from $15,000 for a state representative race to $1 million for a gubernatorial race. Candidates could receive even more if they are being outspent by a privately funded candidate.

The Oregon initiative sets up a similar system of public financing and is primarily funded by a partial repeal of an existing tax credit.

Ozark and Oregon chapter volunteers are gearing up to phone bank, send out postcards, hold town meetings, write op-eds and educate their neighbors.

Another opportunity to even the playing field is being organized by the Alliance for Better Campaigns, which is launching "GreedyTV.org" - a Walter Cronkite-led project to get more free air time for political discussions. Major broadcasters have generally not been willing to air more than brief snatches of candidate forums, debates or events other than the presidential race. To find out how you can influence your local network to do more, call 1-800-GREEDYTV.

With more free air time and a more level playing field, we'd have a lot more to cheer for.

Thanks to Eli Levitt of the Club's political program for research assistance. To learn more about the Club's campaign-finance reform efforts, contact eli.levitt@sierraclub.org


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