Minnesotans may soon know more about who is giving and spending money on state campaigns, and state candidates may be able to collect larger contributions and spend more, too.
The Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, which oversees fundraising and spending by candidates, political parties and outside groups, adopted legislative recommendations Wednesday that would bring the state up to speed with federal rules regarding campaign finance disclosure, and potentially ease the influence of outside political spending.
Now it’s up to state lawmakers to approve the changes.
Campaign contribution and spending limits for statewide candidates haven’t been updated for years. The proposal would allow state Senate candidates to collect at least $2,500 per donor, state House candidates to collect at least $1,500 per donor and candidates for governor to collect at least $5,250 per donor. The caps apply to candidates who limit their spending to get a public subsidy from the state.
Board members say the current limits don’t reflect the fiscal reality of running a campaign. Some believe the low limits have shifted large donations away from the candidates to outside political groups that have increasing influence over elections.
And others believe the limits take candidates away from campaigning.
“The amount of time people have to spend seeking these lower contributions is really incredible,” said board vice chair Andy Lugar. “One of the problems with our current system of limits, is you spend more time trying to find the next person at $100 or $200 and less time out in the public talking to voters.”
The proposal also reflects the board’s concerns over the influx of outside money in this year’s state elections. There are several loopholes in state law that allow political groups to influence elections through advertisements, mailers, and other communications without saying how they’ve spent that cash or who their donors are.
If lawmakers adopt the recommendations, it would be “significant,” said board executive director Gary Goldsmith.
“It will bring us much more in line with the current thinking of the Supreme Court,” he said, specifically on issues having to do with which campaign ads require disclosure and which don’t.
For instance, political groups that pay for mailers asking voters to “vote for” a particular candidate must disclose their fundraising and spending to the board. Groups that issue mailers that don’t use words associated with so-called express advocacy are not required to report anything.
The board wants to loosen that definition.
It also wants the Legislature to give it broader authority to require nonprofit corporations that spend on behalf of candidates or that give money to political groups or ballot question funds to say more about their donors and how much those donors are giving.
Both of Minnesota’s ballot question funds received large amounts of cash from nonprofits located outside the state, for instance, but little is known about who gave to those nonprofits. The board’s proposed changes would shed more light on those donors.
The board decided not to include stricter rules about lawmaker economic interest disclosure in their proposal because they want more time to study the issue.
Nevertheless, how lawmakers make their money – and the potential conflicts of interest that come along with those payments – is of concern to the board, in part due to recent reporting by Minnesota Public Radio that highlighted the business relationship between two Republican legislators who wrote a bill that created an alternative low-income health insurance program and a company that pushed for the legislation.
Other states have stricter requirements.
“I think it is an important piece, especially when you look at how you rate among other states,” said board member Deanna Wiener.
But Lugar said asking a lawmaker’s spouse to say more about their financial interests, for instance, would be “a bit of an imposition.”
There appears to be an appetite at the Capitol to adopt some of these changes.
State DFL Rep. Steve Simon, who will chair the House Government Operations and Elections committee next session, thinks increasing contribution limits is a good idea. And he’s also concerned that candidates and voters don’t know enough about who is paying for political ads.
“People have a right to know where these large sums of money are coming from that are meant to, and some cases do influence public opinion on very important issues,” Simon said. “There are loopholes that a lot of these groups use to get around such disclosure and they are legal loopholes. The question is whether we should close those loopholes so that people have a better idea of who is giving and how much.”