by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist.

Another Earth Day has come and gone. Despite an energetic celebration at Peace Park and thousands of dollars spent by environmental groups in 2005, no real progress is being made to conserve the planet’s resources.

Public lands are being put up for sale, we’re more dependent on oil than ever, and the clean air and water acts have been effectively gutted by funding cuts and executive order. Carbon dioxide levels are rising, the planet’s climate is destabilizing and deforestation is not slowing – except where there are no more forests.

The problem isn’t that the public doesn’t care about the environment or the consequences of our unsustainable economy. Survey after survey shows conservation and environmental concerns are a priority for an overwhelming majority of Americans. The problem is our state and federal governments are not responsive to the public’s interest in the environment, no matter how earnest.

The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Fund and hundreds of other such groups are spinning their wheels. Frankly, what is the point of giving money to the Sierra Club so it can lobby President George W. Bush or Gov. Matt Blunt on water quality issues? It might as well be lobbying a rock to fly. It is simply not in the rock’s nature to fly, and it is not in Blunt’s or Bush’s nature to run counter to his corporate backers and instead act on what the people want.

The sad fact is that until we break the grip of corporate lobbyists and drive the money out of our political system, environmental concerns will not be heard.

The first step in making the government responsive to the people is to start publicly financing campaigns. A “clean elections” law like the ones in Arizona and Maine would allow Missouri officeholders to get off the fundraising treadmill and spend time listening to their constituents.

Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona was one of the first officeholders to be elected in that state using public financing. “The difference between being able to go out and spend your time talking with voters, meeting with groups, doing things like traveling to communities that have been underrepresented in the past as opposed to being on the phone selling tickets to a $250-a-plate fundraiser – that’s the real, practical difference,” the governor said.

Passed in 1998, the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act is a voluntary program for public funding of campaigns. Candidates who receive public funds must adhere to spending limits but also get the right to claim they are running a “clean election.”

Candidates who don’t receive public funding are not required to adhere to any spending limits but do have more restrictive limits on contributions and more intense public reporting requirements. Moreover, Arizona’s system has a provision that allows “clean candidates” to receive additional funds if they are in danger of being outspent.

Qualifying for public funding in Arizona is fairly simple. A candidate who wants to publicly fund his campaign must first get a number of constituents to make $5 donations to the campaign. A candidate for state representative must get 210 people to donate $5 each. A gubernatorial candidate must get 4,200 $5 donations. These “qualifying contributions” are to make sure the candidate has enough support to be viable and keep wacko candidates from getting public funding each time they file for a race.

Right now, we all pay for campaigns through increased taxes and increased retail prices. Corporate America funds election campaigns with profits – earned from us – and in turn gets tax breaks, government subsidies, no-bid contracts and other pork – again, paid by us. Eliminating the middleman and funding campaigns directly would save us a lot of money. And we would make officeholders indebted to us instead of corporate lobbies.

One Arizona representative put it this way: “I don’t owe anyone after the race. … I don’t owe them any favors, and I think that’s instrumental. You’re able to concentrate on the issues, what needs to be tackled, as opposed to figuring out where your money is coming from.”

We don’t have many Earth Days left until there will be no point in having them at all. Public financing of elections is the necessary first step in changing the course of the environment’s decline.