Parties, candidates reaching out to donors as refund program returns

Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, discusses the health insurance exchange program at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2012. Atkins benefited from the state’s political contribution refund program more than any other Minnesota candidate in both 2008 and 2009.

Leaders of the Olmsted County DFL are fielding phone calls from potential donors today now that the state’s political contribution refund program has been reinstated.

A casualty of budget cuts in 2009, the state-funded program provides a $50 refund ($100 for a married couple filing taxes jointly) per calendar year for donations to political parties and candidates. In the past the program has cost about $11 million to $12 million per biennium, according to the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.

Lynn Wilson, chairwoman of the Olmsted County DFL, said contributions to her organization dropped after 2009. She said the refund program encourages candidates and parties to reach out to a large number of donors instead of just the ones with deep pockets.

“It’s an opportunity for the grassroots to become more involved. As we’ve seen in recent years with Citizens United and large corporations giving large amounts of money anonymously, this allows the citizen at the grassroots level to partake and participate in a way that is affordable for them,” she said.

The Olmsted County DFL benefited from the refunds more than any other local party unit in 2006, 2007 and 2008. But historically, in terms of donations to political parties, the Republican Party has benefited more from the refund program. For example, in 2009, Republican Party organizations collected $1,948,847 worth of donations that received state refunds, compared to the DFL’s $655,590.

Wilson said she hopes that will change. “It’s all about awareness and getting the information out,” she said.

Common Cause Minnesota, a group that has worked to limit big money’s influence in elections, has been urging lawmakers to reinstate the program.

“We’re excited to have it back in there. We’re hopeful that this will be sustainable. We know that it’s, as we’ve seen, subject to budget cuts. But we hope that this a permanent change and for the better,” the group’s director Jeremy Schroeder said.

Not all candidates choose to participate in the refund program. Among those who do, Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, benefited the most from the program in both 2008 and 2009 with more than $60,000 in refunds issued to his donors for those years.

Only contributions made July 1 or later are eligible for the refund. A Campaign Finance and Disclosure Board memo provides more information about the political contribution refund program.