Campaign finance laws could be in for big change

Minnesota’s campaign finance program that provides public financing to candidates who limit their spending is under threat, but another mechanism that encourages small-dollar donations could return after a two-year suspension.

The reshaping of Minnesota’s campaign finance system led to a back-and-forth Wednesday between Democrats who worry about it unraveling and Republicans who say they’re enabling candidates to keep up amid rising outside group spending. After a year that saw the cost of some legislative races top $1 million for the first time — largely because of outside spending — the direction the debate goes could determine if those high-spending campaigns become the norm.

The final picture won’t be known for weeks because the issue is tied up in budget bills that still haven’t received House and Senate votes or Gov. Mark Dayton’s blessing.

Campaign watchdogs joined legislative Democrats in speaking against the elimination of the voluntary subsidy program that most candidates use. If it’s ditched, they argue, there would be no mechanism to enforce overall spending limits.

“With this repeal, Minnesota will be making an unconditional surrender to big money in politics. Without these limits, all campaign spending limits will be gone, spending will increase sharply,” said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville. “Candidates who reject special interest money, like myself and a number of others, will have very little chance of winning. Our political system will become even more beholden to the power of interest groups with big money.”

George Beck, chairman of Minnesota Citizens for Clean Elections and a former chair of the state campaign finance regulatory board, said the dash-for-cash would only intensify.

“The proposed changes will change the face of Minnesota elections and will destroy programs that have been nationally recognized for excellence,” Beck said. “Unless we raise our voices, democracy in Minnesota is going to suffer and pay-to-play will become the rule.”

Republicans behind the push argue tax dollars shouldn’t be used to that degree in campaigns.

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said taxpayers are being forced to contribute to candidates against their will. Kiffmeyer, who chairs a Senate state government committee, added that spending limits handicap candidates who can encounter a barrage of independent spending in swing districts.

“The candidate’s voice in all this is drowned out. And because they have these spending limits, they have an inability to respond in kind to false accusations and misinformation,” she said. “So we’ve hampered our own candidates in being able to do that.”

Kiffmeyer points out that the separate Political Contribution Refund (PCR) program would remain in place and regain its force. It allows people to get reimbursed for one $50 contribution in any year to a candidate or political party. It has been a way for politicians and their parties to solicit low-dollar donations, including from contributors who might not be able to afford it otherwise.

“They have to work for it. They have to talk to the voter. They have to make their case. That makes candidates in the position of going to the voters and getting that support,” she said. “In the public subsidy that is not the case. It’s automatic if you raise so much money.”

But for the past two years, the PCR has been suspended because lawmakers didn’t fund it. The money — $9 million for the next two years — is due to be restored as part of a budget that takes effect in July unless explicitly blocked by the Legislature and Dayton.

Meanwhile, the Legislature has effectively idled the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board by failing to confirm three appointments to the six-member board by an April 20 deadline. That means Dayton will have to appoint new members after a required job-posting period that won’t conclude until the end of May. The board has already canceled one meeting because it lacks a quorum and future meetings could be in doubt.

Executive Director Jeff Sigurdson said he has reminded lawmakers of the importance of having a fully functioning board. He wouldn’t say whether any investigations are on hold because of the situation.

“I can’t go there,” he said. “But the board wouldn’t schedule a meeting unless there was tasks to be done or work to be looked at. So it’s certainly backing up things.”

It’s the second time in a year that inaction by the Legislature stymied the board.

Kiffmeyer said it comes down to the caliber of Dayton’s appointees, whom some Republicans see as too political for the regulatory board.

“The last couple of appointments of the governor that have not received support in either the House or the Senate last year or this year have been those who have a deep history of being activist, very political, especially in campaign finance areas,” she said.

State law dictates a specific political makeup and that some members be former lawmakers. Confirmation requires a 60 percent vote in the House and Senate.