During the 1992 election cycle, individuals could contribute a total of $2,000 to state House and Senate campaigns.
But during the next legislative session, those campaign contribution limits were dramatically reduced. The new caps on individual contributions to state legislative campaigns: $100 in non-election years and $500 in election years.
Those levels have remained constant over the past two decades. To put that figure in perspective, if campaign contributions had increased along with inflation those totals would have risen by more than 50 percent in the ensuing years. Or looked at another way: If the pre-1993 campaign caps had been kept in place and adjusted for inflation they would now top $3,000 per election cycle — more than five times as much as currently allowed.
That might be about to change. On Wednesday the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board voted to recommend that the Legislature increase those caps on individual contributions when it convenes in January.
The watchdog agency also voted to recommend increasing the amount of money that state candidates can spend on their campaigns while still remaining eligible for public subsidies. The board recommended increasing limits on individual contributions — at a minimum — from $500 to $1500 per election cycle for House races and from $500 to $2500 for Senate races. It also called on the Legislature to increase spending caps on House races from just over $40,000 to at least $60,000 for House races and from $109,000 to at least $120,000 for Senate contests.
The proposed changes are part of a package of modifications put forth by the campaign finance board in the wake of an election season in which state legislative campaigns were frequently overrun by spending from independent political organizations. In the Senate District 36 contest, for instance, which pitted incumbent GOP Sen. Ben Kruse against DFL challenger John Hoffman, the two campaigns spent less than $70,000 together, according to campaign finance reports filed prior to Election Day. Meanwhile independent expenditure groups poured roughly $250,000 into the race.
Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the campaign finance board, argues that limits on campaign contributions and expenditures simply haven’t kept up with the realities of today’s campaigns. “They’re not sufficient to compete with the independent voices from other associations that want to be involved in a particular election,” Goldsmith said.
On Tuesday, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton also voiced support for increasing limits on campaign contributions. He pointed out that such caps are easily circumvented by donors who want to wield outsized influence. “Then the money goes to [the] party. Or the money goes to some outside group who’s going to make ‘independent expenditures,’ and then nobody knows where that money is coming from,” Dayton said.
Among other legislative proposals backed by the campaign finance board:
• Expand state disclosure requirements to groups that don’t engage in “express advocacy.” Currently organizations can avoid registering with the state campaign finance board if they don’t explicitly endorse or oppose an individual candidate. In the GOP primary in Senate District 33, for instance, the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity put out a last-minute attack piece on state Rep. Connie Doepke suggesting that she supported Obamacare. But because the piece didn’t expressly advocate voting for or against Doepke, Americans for Prosperity didn’t have to disclose how much it spent on the mailing or who contributed money to pay for it. “Our statute didn’t keep up with federal law and court decisions when they began to recognize that you could clearly influence the election without using those words,” Goldsmith said.
• Tighten disclosure rules for donations to independent expenditure groups and groups working to pass or defeat constitutional amendments. Under current rules, groups can avoid any meaningful disclosure by exploiting a loophole that allows them to decide which portion of a contribution is counted towards its political expenditures. For example, if an organization receives $1,000 contributions from 500 donors and a $500,000 contribution from a single donor, it has a total of $1 million. If the group then spends half of that money on political expenditures, it can avoid reporting the names of any donors. How? It simply counts the first $999.99 of each contribution as the portion utilized for political work. Therefore no individual donor reaches the $1,000 threshold triggering disclosure. This was how the National Organization for Marriage, one of the main groups supporting a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, largely avoided detailing its donors.
Board members also expressed interest in changing the rules for designating who must register as a lobbyist, but indicated that they weren’t ready to put forth a specific recommendation for the Legislature to consider. “I’m not convinced that the language that we’ve come up with thus far works,” said Andy Luger, a former federal prosecutor who sits on the board. “I just don’t think we’ve spent enough time on this.”
Under current law, the only individuals who are deemed lobbyists are those who are paid to influence policy by meeting with legislators or urging others to meet with legislators. This became an issue with regard to the advocacy work performed Dan McGrath, executive director of Minnesota Majority. Common Cause Minnesota filed a complaint with the campaign finance board arguing that McGrath was running afoul of state law by failing to register as a lobbyist despite being the primary face of a multi-year campaign to require that voters show photo identification at the polls. Despite substantial evidence compiled by Common Cause detailing McGrath’s efforts to influence public policy, the campaign finance board determined that he was not remiss in failing to register with the state.
Despite this laundry list of potential changes to state campaign finance laws, Hamline University political science professor David Schultz is not convinced that they would significantly enhance the transparency and accountability of Minnesota’s current election system. “There’s clearly nothing radical there in the sense that it’s going to improve the state of campaign finance or lessen the impact of special interest money in politics in Minnesota,” said Schultz, an expert in campaign finance laws. “What struck me the most about it was [that it was] really nibbling around the edges without really doing anything serious.”
And these changes — if ultimately enacted by the Legislature — could prove toothless if a more fundamental problem with the campaign finance board isn’t addressed. The watchdog agency’s current annual budget, $689,000, is at its lowest level in a decade. That’s led to a staffing drop from 9.5 employees in 2003 to 7 employees presently. At the same time, the number of complaints that the campaign finance board is tasked with investigating has skyrocketed. From 2007 to 2010, there were fewer than 10 complaints annually. This year alone, there were 31 allegations of campaign finance abuses that the board’s staff investigated.
In recent comments to the board, Goldsmith included a “report card” delineating its performance on various areas that fall within its purview. For instance, he noted that training for campaign treasurers in outstate Minnesota is “almost nonexistent.” Goldsmith believes it will be impossible to improve some of the current shortcomings without additional money for staffing. The board is seeking $1 million from the Legislature for the next fiscal year.
“We’d like to keep doing well those things we’re doing well, and improve on the next list, and we really should start doing some of those things that we aren’t doing at all,” Goldsmith said. “But without a significant increase in funding, we’re just going to be treading water and actually dropping some of the work that we do now.”