The influence of average Minnesotans over state elections is eroding. Recent reports show our state elections are becoming a game played by the affluent. The state needs to update its public financing program so that mainstream Minnesotans of all political persuasions do not become irrelevant.
Huge amounts of money have flooded into campaigns since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United. The river of money has flowed primarily through “independent” expenditure committees. These “independent” committees are spending more to influence Minnesota state election outcomes than state candidate committees spend.
The Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board gathers and provides information to the public on campaign financing. The board has issued several reports in recent years that should give Minnesotans pause.
The board reported that $61 million was spent on state campaigns in 2018. This represents nearly an 80% increase over 2014 state campaign expenditures.
Of the $61 million spent in 2018, $33 million constituted “independent” expenditures. This is nearly twice the amount spent by independent expenditure committees in 2014.
Further, to fund the $61 million spent on Minnesota state elections in 2018, 78 individuals made contributions of $50,000 or more. These 78 people collectively contributed more than $18 million to affect the 2018 state elections.
By comparison, in 2014, only 32 individuals contributed $50,000 or more and their collective expenditures were approximately $5 million.
This dramatic increase in “mega-contributor” spending may reflect, in part, a recognition that Minnesota is a competitive state where outside money can have a major influence. Increasingly, money is flowing in from outside the state. For example, among the 78 mega-contributors in 2018, the name “Soros” (as in progressive George Soros and his relatives) appears four times.
Further, out of the top 10 individuals who contributed $50,000 or more, seven are well-known to have progressive leanings. Those seven contributed nearly $7.5 million collectively, dwarfing the spending of three well-known conservatives who made the top 10 list by over $5 million.
While many conservatives initially applauded the unleashing of money resulting from Citizens United, this is hardly the result they anticipated. This is also not the result expected by progressives, who routinely rail against the impact of big money in politics.
Most importantly, it is not what most mainstream Minnesotans should want. Simply put, too few are wielding too much influence.
Since it is unlikely that the impact of Citizens United will be mitigated in the near future, updating our state’s existing public financing system is necessary. Minnesota provides public financing in two ways: 1) a voluntary political party preference checkoff on tax forms, and 2) political contribution refunds from the state.
The tax checkoff system providing funding to political parties is on life support. Created in 1974, the checkoff system permits Minnesota taxpayers to contribute a modest amount ($5) to political parties out of their tax payments. In 1974, nearly 373,000 Minnesota taxpayers participated in the checkoff program. In 2017, despite having eight political parties to choose from, only 172,000 Minnesotans participated.
This deterioration of participation may reflect confusion created by use of electronic tax filing or it may reflect disgust with the political party system. In either event, influence by mainstream Minnesotans over political parties through the checkoff program has diminished.
The political contribution refund (PCR) program is alive, but needs a transfusion. The PCR program refunds, on a dollar-for-dollar basis ($50/individual, $100/couple), political contributions to state candidates who sign a public subsidy agreement, or to political parties. In 2018, 49,046 Minnesotans took advantage of the PCR program. They received a total of $3.1 million in refunds from the state.
While significant, that is only about 16% of what the 78 mega-contributors spent in 2018.
While Democratic state candidates received a slightly greater boost from the PCR program than their Republican rivals did in 2018, the state Republican party received a greater financial benefit from the PCR program than the state Democratic party.
The refund dollar amount in the PCR program ($50/individual and $100/couple) was set in 1990. The amounts have never been increased. This must change before the 2020 elections if mainstream Minnesotans are to not be drowned out by the impact of Citizens United.
Raising the amount of the PCR refunds to $200/individual and $400/couple would incentivize mainstream voters to contribute to campaigns and cause candidates to reach out to those voters for financial support. This may help restore balance by ensuring that those elected are responsive to their constituents and not merely to the wealthy few who are spending millions of dollars to affect state elections and policy.
Robert Moilanen is a member of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. The board is looking at, but has not yet taken a formal position on, changes to Minnesota’s public financing programs.