Gift ban author decries higher limits, lower disclosure requirements
On the afternoon that the House cast its historic vote in favor of gay marriage — completely monopolizing attention at the Capitol — the Senate quietly debated a bill overhauling the state’s campaign finance rules.
Most notably, the bill would significantly increase caps on spending and contributions for political campaigns. Limits on campaign contributions would jump from $600 per election cycle for individuals and organizations to $1,500 for Senate races and $1,000 for House races. It would mark the first increase in those caps in more than two decades.
Similarly campaign spending limits on Senate races would nearly double — to $120,000. For House races, the limit for future races would be $60,000 per election cycle.
Those increases were based on recommendations adopted by the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board in December. The goal is to allow campaigns to compete with independent political organizations on a more equitable footing. An analysis of 36 swing district contests conducted by Capitol Report found that less than 20 percent of the money spent on those 2012 races was disbursed by the campaigns. The overwhelming majority came from independent political groups like Alliance for a Better Minnesota on the left and the Freedom Club on the right.
But Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who’s long been the Legislature’s most ardent supporter of campaign finance restrictions, worries that the proposed changes go too far in loosening spending and contribution constraints.
“It’s basically escalating the arms race,” said Marty. “When the problem is too much big money in politics, saying we’re going to put more big money into politics doesn’t strike me as the best way to [fix] it.”
Liberalizing campaign spending limits isn’t the only significant change in the Senate bill. It also adds language designed to close a major loophole in the state’s disclosure rules. Under current statute, only communications that directly call on individuals to vote for or against a candidate are required to disclose their donors and details of their expenditures. The Senate bill would broaden disclosure requirements to include any communication that “is susceptible of no interpretation by a reasonable person other than as advocating the election or defeat of one or more clearly identified candidates.”
But that provision has garnered opposition from Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the influential anti-abortion group. In part at their behest, a similar provision was struck from the House version of the bill. Whether the disclosure language survives will be determined by a conference committee that’s charged with negotiating a compromise before Monday’s close of session.
The Senate bill picked up a couple of amendments during the floor debate that also put it in conflict with the House proposal. Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, proposed an amendment that would exempt events that all senators are invited to from the state’s stringent gift ban. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk spoke in favor of the proposal during the floor debate. “It just seems like there’s not undue influence on anybody if we’re all invited,” Bakk said.
But Marty, who authored the gift ban legislation two decades ago, chafes at the dilution of the restrictions on influence-peddling. “They say we need more [socializing]. I agree,” Marty said. “We should be more sociable people. It’s not like we can’t socialize with each other unless somebody else is paying the bill.”
Marty further points out that such social gatherings are only organized by deep-pocketed organizations like Education Minnesota, the Minnesota Vikings and the Mayo Clinic. “The biggest groups, the most powerful groups in the state – they’re the ones who are going to be using that,” he said.
The other amendment was brought forward by Marty in response to a proposal to lift the level at which lobbyist contributions must be disclosed from $100 to $200. Instead Marty proposed requiring that all lobbyist contributions be disclosed. Despite opposition from the bill’s author, Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, the amendment was adopted by a 35-27 vote.
But Marty is not particularly optimistic that the provision will survive in conference committee, noting that both the Senate and House bills included the $200 disclosure threshold. “You understand the dynamics here. If both chairs want the other way, they’ll take it out,” Marty said. “I’m hoping it will survive.”