Minn. campaign regulators back plan to fix political cash conundrum by allowing more money in

  • Article by: BRIAN BAKST , Associated Press
  • Updated: December 12, 2012 - 2:19 PM
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Minnesota campaign regulators backed a plan Wednesday to let candidates accept more money from donors by raising limits in force since 1993.

The Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board recommendation heads to the Legislature, which along with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton will have the ultimate say in whether the contribution and related spending caps get increased. The proposal seeks to boost the maximum per-donor checks by a minimum of 50 percent from current levels, with the precise amount dependent on the office at stake.

Candidates for governor, for instance, would be able to seek contributions of up to $5,250 over a four-year period, up from $3,500 now. State House candidates could fetch $1,500 per donor in each campaign, up from $600 now. New rates for other offices would fall somewhere in between.

"This is about being timely in the cost of running a campaign," said Deanna Wiener, a Democratic appointee to the politically balanced six-member board. "It's way overdue."

The plan was adopted on a unanimous voice vote.

Board members and staff also say it would help counteract a surge of money to outside political groups by giving candidates a better chance of controlling the messages in their races. Independent groups not subject to limits are becoming ever-powerful players in races without the same accountability as candidates.

Prior to the last limit adjustment two decades ago, candidates could take far more from each contributor. Checks to gubernatorial candidates could reach $20,000 and legislative candidates could angle for $1,500 per donor contributions.

Even though the dollar figures in the board's proposal are specific, members made clear they were comfortable pushing the ceiling even higher.

"It's still too low," said Andy Lugar, another Democratic appointee.

Lugar said the recommendation is more than an antidote to the strengthened political groups, which are an outcropping of court cases that weakened the ability of officials to regulate money for non-candidates and parties. Lugar said candidates are putting a premium on foraging for small donations at the expense of direct contact with voters.

"You can literally spend eight hours a day on the phone seeking these contributions of $100, $200 that require you to stay locked in a room instead of out there talking to people," he said.

The board's plan enhances existing incentives for smaller donors by making more of their contributions subject to state rebates.

Minnesota campaign law also governs the type of donations candidates can accept. Only a fraction of their contributions can come from lobbyists, political action committees and so-called large donors. Once they hit their limit, the maximum donation is reduced. The board isn't recommending a departure from that practice.

Candidates who accept a public subsidy payment — fed by income tax check-offs — are subject to spending limits unless their rival opts out of the subsidy system. The board wants to boost those limits, too. For example, maximum spending on a state Senate race would climb from $108,960 to $120,000 and gubernatorial candidates would see their caps rise from about $4.1 million to $5 million.

At a forum this week, Dayton said he favors raising contribution limits. Some lawmakers say they're ready for a change, too.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, a Democrat who is a leading election law voice for his party, said the proposal from regulators "seems to be headed in the right direction."

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