Minnesota’s practice of democracy is far from perfect. But it affords average citizens a greater measure of political clout than they have in many other states. Two-thirds of donations to Minnesota legislative candidates in 2012 came in increments of $250 or less, a share second among the states only to Connecticut.
For that, credit is due an ingenious 40-year-old public campaign finance scheme that provides refunds for small donations to candidates for state offices and allows those candidates to voluntarily limit special-interest contributions and total spending in exchange for taxpayer-provided campaign cash.
That good arrangement is under assault in the Minnesota House this year. If the House GOP majority has its way, all that would remain of campaign finance reforms enacted in the wake of the Watergate scandal would be limits on the size of donations from individuals and political action committees (PACs). Public financing of campaigns would end, and with it any incentive for voluntary limits on candidates’ spending. They would be free to accept an unlimited number of donations from PACs and lobbyists. Today’s limit on such donations — 20 percent of total campaign receipts — would disappear.
Also eliminated would be reimbursement for campaign donations of up to $50 for individuals and $100 for married couples. Those refunds take about $12 million from state coffers in each two-year election cycle; the campaign subsidies take a few million more.
Those changes would trigger an unwelcome sea change in state politics — just in time for a 2016 election with no statewide races on the ballot. Money that might typically be spent on U.S. Senate or gubernatorial races could flow instead to legislative campaigns.
To their credit, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and key DFL legislators announced Monday that they intend to block the proposed changes. Minnesotans who value civic participation should want the public campaign finance system not just defended, but also strengthened.
Caps on total spending and on donation amounts were belatedly increased in 2013 after years of neglect. They should regularly be adjusted for inflation, and refund limits should also be increased.
But the most-needed change in state campaign laws does not involve the campaigns candidates control. It’s closure of a loophole that allows independent organizations to make “educational” expenditures without naming the sources of their funds. A case in point arrived in some Minnesota mailboxes only last week. Current law requires no disclosure of who paid for fliers from the Minnesota Jobs Coalition that blasted DFLers for supporting higher gas taxes. That should change.
Stronger disclosure requirements have been repeatedly blocked at the Capitol by such groups as abortion opponents and the pro-gun lobby. But no one has been calling — out loud, anyway — for dismantling the public financing system. More than 90 percent of legislative candidates in 2014 participated in the voluntary program.
State Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said the impetus for ending the program comes from a GOP view that “we shouldn’t be using public tax dollars for politicians’ campaigns.” But the experiences of other states show that if public money is not used, special interest money will fill the void. We think those interests have quite enough influence already.