WASHINGTON (AP) – Convinced the system of taxpayer financing for the presidential campaign fund is in trouble, two election regulators are pushing for changes and asking government ethics officials how far they can go to lobby Congress

While awaiting answers from Federal Election Commission attorneys and the Office of Government Ethics, Commissioners Scott Thomas and Michael Toner this week began sending their proposal to campaign-finance watchdog groups and journalists.

The two commissioners feel the system hasn’t kept pace with the cost of presidential primary campaigns, making it less appealing to major party candidates. Among other changes, the fund should give primary candidates more money, they argue.

“If major legislative changes are not made, I think the presidential funding program runs a serious risk of becoming irrelevant,” said Toner, a Republican.

Unable to get support for their proposals from all six members of the commission, Thomas and Toner decided to pursue changes on their own. Congress, not the FEC, has the power to overhaul the system.

The presidential fund is financed by taxpayers with a $3 checkoff on their returns, at no cost to themselves. Still, only about one in 10 taxpayers checks “yes,” and the system typically starts each presidential election year short on cash.

The fund, created in the 1970s as one of several post-Watergate reforms, is tapped for the presidential primaries, the general election and political party nominating conventions.

Candidates who receive public financing for the primaries get a match of up to $250 for each contribution, up to a certain limit, and must abide by state-by-state and overall spending limits. In the 2000 primaries, Democrat Al Gore received about $16.9 million in matching funds and was limited to $40.5 million in primary spending.

President Bush opted out in the GOP primaries in 2000 and raised more than $100 million. He is considered likely to skip it again in the 2004 primaries, and some of the Democratic presidential hopefuls are thinking about doing the same.

The doubling of the individual contribution limit to $2,000 in the campaign finance law that went into effect in November makes it easier to raise more money than candidates can reap from the so-called matching funds, the commissioners say.

The changes they suggest include:

– Raising the overall primary spending limit to around $75 million, the level of the general election spending cap.

– Doubling the primary match to $500 and raising the total public money primary candidates could get to about $37.5 million.

– Requiring candidates to raise more money than they currently must to qualify for the primary money, so there is more for viable candidates. Toner wants to raise the threshold from the current $100,000 to $1 million; Thomas supports a smaller increase, such as raising it to $300,000.

– Raising the taxpayer checkoff to $5.

They also want Congress to abolish state-by-state primary spending limits, a change the commission supports and has already asked Congress to make.

Thomas, a Democrat, said he hopes Congress will overhaul the program in time for the 2004 primaries. The system will make its first payments to 2004 candidates in January.

There is not enough money in the system to pay for all the changes the two seek; Congress would have to make a special appropriation. Thomas conceded it’s a tall order but is encouraging fast action.

“As much as people complain about the influence of big money in Washington, you would hope people would understand this is one program that is designed to ensure that whoever wins the presidency, whichever party they’re from, is going to come in free of all those strings and bonds,” Thomas said.

The two commissioners aren’t alone in examining the program. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who co-sponsored the campaign finance law, said recently he is working on a presidential public funding proposal with Fred Wertheimer of the campaign finance watchdog group Democracy 21. The Campaign Finance Institute also is preparing recommendations.

AP-ES-04-17-03 1648EDT

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