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Democracy For The People
TexPIRG Education Fund is pushing back against big money in our elections and working to educate the public about the benefits of small donor incentive programs, to amplify the voices of the American people over corporations, Super PACs and the super wealthy.
The money election
One person, one vote: That’s how we’re taught elections in our democracy are supposed to work. Candidates should compete to win our votes by revealing their vision, credentials and capabilities. We, the people, then get to decide who should represent us.
Except these days there's another election: the money election. And in the money election, most people don’t have any say at all. Instead, a small number of super-wealthy individuals and corporations decide which candidates will raise enough money to run the kind of high-priced campaign it takes to win. This money election starts long before you and I even have a chance to cast our votes, and its consequences are felt long after. On issue after issue, politicians often favor the donors who funded their campaigns over the people they're elected to represent.
Super PACs and Super Wealthy Dominate Elections
Wealthy donors have always had an outsized influence in our democracy, but misguided jurisprudence, like the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, has opened the floodgates for mega donations and corporate spending in our elections.
Spending on political races has skyrocketed, and running for office has never been more expensive. The 2020 election cycle was the most expensive in U.S. history with over $14 billion spent. As a result, unless candidates are independently wealthy, they often need to court contributions from mega-donors or corporate interests to be competitive in their races.
Our currect campaign finance system gives a very small number of people massive influence on who runs for office and, often, what issues they decide to talk about. In 2016, fewer than 400 families gave more than half of all of the money raised in the presidential race. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work. Our democracy is supposed to be based on the principle of one person, one vote.
Ultimately, we need to overturn Citizens United and make other systemic changes if we want to get big money out of our elections. But large-scale changes like these take time, public pressure, and elected leaders who are committed to making it happen. That’s why we’re researching and supporting small donor empowerment programs, that will bring power back to the people.
It's time to reclaim our democracy and bring it back to the principle of one person, one vote.
RECLAIMING OUR DEMOCRACY
Small donor publc financing programs match contributions of ordinary people with public funds. Candidates access these funds when they opt into the program and refuse to take large and corporate contributions. This means anyone with enough public support can run for office, those candidates can raise enough money to be competitive, and they will be answerable to their constituents, not a handful of mega-donors and corporations.
Communites across Maryland have established small donor public financing to give everyone a voice in our elections and keep big money out. Montgomery County's program was in effect for the first time for the 2018 elections. To participate, candidates must reject contributions over $150 and money from corporations. Maryland PIRG Foundation analysis found:
- Candidates who had qualified received nearly twice as many donations from Montgomery County residents than those not participating.
- Those not participating received only 8 percent of their donations from people giving less than $150, while those participating received more than 90 percent of their donations from people giving less than $150.
- By the June primary, more than half of all candidates, over 30 total, participated in the program. Ultimately, 22 qualified for the program — candidates from both parties and from a wide range of backgrounds who were able to run competitive campaigns based on support from the communities, not large donors.
Together, we can win real changes now in how elections are funded throughout America — so more candidates for more offices focus on we, the people, instead of we, the megadonors.
Citizens’ ability to understand how their tax dollars are spent is fundamental to democracy. Budget and spending transparency holds government officials accountable for making smart decisions, checks corruption, and provides citizens an opportunity to affect how government dollars are spent.
State and local governments spend billions of dollars every year on economic development programs in the form of forgone tax revenue and direct cash grant payments to corporations in an effort to stoke investment and job creation in a particular city, state or industry.
A review of economic development subsidy reporting in all 50 states finds that a majority of states fail to meet minimum standards of online transparency, leaving residents, watchdogs and public officials in the dark about key public expenditures. States should shine light on economic development subsidies by requiring the online publication of key transparency reports and inclusion of economic development spending in the state’s online checkbook portal to meet the expectations of citizens seeking information in the 21st century.
Economic development subsidies – be they tax exemptions, credits, or direct cash grant payments – are a form of public spending, but are rarely held to the same transparency standards as other government expenditures.
Texas received a “C-” for making critical information about how governments are subsidizing business projects with taxpayer dollars readily available to the public online, according to a new report from TexPIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group. Following the Money 2019, the organization’s tenth evaluation of online government spending transparency, gives 17 states a failing grade, while only four states received a grade of “B” or higher.
Texas received an “C-” grade because it lost points for having no laws requiring either a grants report or an online portal database that includes its economic development payments. On the other hand, Texas got full credit for its annually published tax expenditure report.
"As taxpayers, we should be able to see how government spends our money down to the dime," said Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG Education Fund Director. "That includes the billions of dollars that state and local governments give away each year to lure businesses into their backyards."
Citizens’ ability to understand how their tax dollars are spent is fundamental to democracy. Budget and spending transparency, holds government officials accountable for making smart decisions, checks corruption, and provides citizens with an opportunity to affect how government dollars are spent. “Special districts” are a type of government agency that exist outside of traditional forms of general purpose local or state governments, and serve key governmental functions such as public transit or housing. However, special districts are poorly understood by the public and often do business without adhering to modern standards of government budget or spending transparency. The lack of transparency and accountability of many special districts has caused concern among some state agencies and government watchdogs, as it can contribute to an atmosphere conducive to lowered efficiency and potential misconduct.
Texas Public Interest Research Group Education Fund will release a new report, “Following the Money 2018: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” evaluating each state on how well it provides spending information online and assigning them letter grades from “A” to “F.” The report will reveal Texas’ letter grade, compare its public disclosure of spending information to other states, and provide recommendations for improvements.
Transparency in state spending increases accountability, reduces corruption, and promotes greater effectiveness and fiscal responsibility. This is TexPIRG Education Fund’s eighth annual ranking of states’ progress toward checkbook-level spending transparency. Several states have made significant progress since the last report, but the most transparent states maintain user-friendly and searchable transparency sites and provide the public with information about types of expenditures that otherwise receive little public scrutiny, like spending on economic development subsidies and off-budget agencies.
The report graded each state’s transparency website from “A” to “F” based on its content and user-friendliness. This year, for the first time, we worked with focus groups to see how well the ordinary Americans could navigate the sites. With that new standard, most states’ grades dropped from our previous report.
“When states are transparent about how they spend tax dollars, we all win: the state saves money, it can operate more efficiently and effectively, and citizens can feel more confident in their government,” said Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG Ed Fund State Director, “That’s why we are so pleased to highlight Comptroller Hegar's leadership on this issue.”
Your tax-deductible donation supports TexPIRG Education Fund's work to educate consumers on the issues that matter, and to stand up to the powerful interests that are blocking progress.
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