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After McCutcheon, a challenge to state’s ‘special sources’ law

Mike Mosedale//April 18, 2014

After McCutcheon, a challenge to state’s ‘special sources’ law

Mike Mosedale//April 18, 2014

Two decades ago, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, proposed sweeping changes to the state’s campaign finance law that would have barred political candidates from accepting contributions from political action committees and lobbyists.

“We couldn’t get any of that,” Marty recalled. “What we ended up with was a compromise.”

As a part of that 1993 deal, however, candidates were subjected to new restrictions in how much money they could take from special sources, defined as PACs, political funds, lobbyists and so-called “large contributors.”

The rationale for the reform: Small donors would gain more say in the political process and the influence of special interests would be muted.

In the years since, the landscape has shifted dramatically and yet Minnesota’s unusual special sources limit has survived more or less intact.

But it will soon be a thing of the past if Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, gets her way.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court last week, Runbeck and three other plaintiffs contend that one aspect of that special sources limit effectively violates the free speech rights of both the candidates and donors.

Runbeck is joined in the suit by former Minnesota House candidate Scott Dutcher and two political donors, businessman Van Carlson of Circle Pines, and attorney Douglas Seaton of Edina.

As outlined in the suit, maximum donations for House candidates are currently set at $1,000. But after a candidate receives a cumulative $12,500 from special sources — be they PACs or large contributor donors like Carlson and Seaton — subsequent donors can only give half the maximum, or $500.

“The only interest advanced by the special sources limit is an illegitimate interest in leveling the electoral playing field,” the lawsuit states.

The plaintiffs are represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm that has successfully overturned campaign laws in several other states.

In its announcement, the Institute described the suit as “among the first opportunities for a federal court to apply the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCutcheon to a state campaign finance law.” In the McCutcheon decision, the high court struck down the limits on how much an individual donor can give to multiple candidates during a single election cycle.

David Schultz, a law professor at Hamline University and campaign finance expert, said there are distinctions between the two cases worth noting.

“McCutcheon was about aggregate limits. This case is about how much money you can give to a candidate depending on how much the candidate has raised,” said Schultz.

While the special sources limit is probably constitutional under existing law, Schultz said, the lawsuit “might be a pretty good test case in terms of taking another whack at overall contribution limits.”

“There are already a lot of challenges in the works, not only on overall contribution limits but also on individual limits and disclosure rules,” Schultz said. “There is no question that the U.S. Supreme Court is moving toward striking down contribution limits at some point.”

In the short term, however, Schultz doubts Runbeck and her fellow plaintiffs will receive the injunction they are looking for.

Given that candidate spending is already dwarfed by expenditures from PACs and political parties, would it have much of an impact if they did?

Schultz doesn’t think so, in part because there are so many means of circumvention.

For his part, Marty, the law’s original champion, agrees that the independent expenditures and disclosure rules are the big game in the campaign finance world these days. But he still doesn’t want to lose the special sources limits.

“Is it the difference between having a good system and a bad one? No,” said Marty. “It’s the difference between a terrible one and an even worse one.”

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