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Minn. watchdog panel wants to see campaign financing overhaul

  • Article by: RACHEL E. STASSEN-BERGER
  • Star Tribune
  • December 12, 2012 - 9:10 PM

The Minnesota agency charged with overseeing campaign finances is pushing the Legislature for a larger budget that would give it more investigative capacity, raise donation limits for candidates and require stricter disclosure from interest groups.

The proposals approved Wednesday by members of the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board are the latest indication that the state's laws are struggling to keep pace with the modern era of supersized fundraising.

"If they adopt all this, I think it will be pretty significant," said board member Deanna Wiener, a former state senator.

Already legislators from both parties who survived an election season of record spending on all fronts are clamoring for changes. Asked this week what one issue had received too little attention, Gov. Mark Dayton responded with just three words: "Campaign finance reform."

Along with legal changes, the board is seeking a $1 million budget in each of the next four years. That's up from the $689,000 it received for this year -- the lowest level it has received since 2003.

With the current budget levels, "we have been able to carry on, but never to excel or improve," said Gary Goldsmith, the board's executive director. The board had considered asking for less money from the state and charging lobbyists and candidates registration fees, as do some other states, but abandoned that idea.

The increased funding is expected to allow the agency to do more investigations and to improve its website.

The board members also want the Legislature to raise the amount an individual could donate to state candidates and the campaign spending limits for lawmakers and constitutional officers. Those limits have not been increased in more than two decades.

The board is recommending that gubernatorial candidates be able to spend $5 million instead of just over $4 million. The limit on House candidates would go to $60,000, up from $41,160. Constitutional officers might see the biggest jump. The board is recommending that secretary of state and state auditor candidates be able to spend $1 million instead of the current $343,680.

That part of the proposal is likely to find a bipartisan welcome at the Capitol. The governor has long advocated for higher limits and more frequent disclosure for state candidates.

The higher dollar figures would give candidates the ability to counter the loud voices coming from outside groups, said the incoming leader of the Senate committee dealing with elections, Katie Sieben, a DFLer who will be the assistant majority leader. Incoming Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, also said updating the limits would make sense.

Wider disclosure proposed

The board also proposed requiring groups that spend on elections but do not currently disclose their spending to begin public reporting.

Board members did not make a recommendation on stricter lobbyist registrations or more disclosure of economic interests by lawmakers, although some think both are needed.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said legislators should have to disclose their sources of income.

"I think that's desperately needed in Minnesota," said Winkler, who noted that under current law, a legislator could work as a consultant for a lobbying group and no one would ever know.

Most states require far more income disclosure from elected officials than Minnesota does. A few years ago, the state received a failing grade for its disclosure laws.

"I don't think it discloses much of anything," board member Neil Peterson said.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @rachelsb

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