Minnesotans curious about who funds their local officials’ campaigns may soon find their frustration at an end.
Jeff Kolb tried to view Crystal officials’ campaign finance information earlier this year and it wasn’t easy.
“You had to jump through a number of hoops,” said Kolb, a political activist and a council candidate in his suburban city.
Cities and counties collect the information, but most require citizens to visit official offices in person to examine the files and they offer little posted guidance on how to track donations down.
Now the Minnesota Legislature is moving to drag local campaign finance data into the digital age.
In exchange for raising the contribution limit on how much donors can give to local candidates, the Legislature is moving to require local governments to put their campaign finance files online and make them publicly accessible.
That would put the state in the forefront of local government campaign finance transparency. If the measure becomes law, Minnesota would become one of the first, if not the first, to force local politicians to disclose their spending and contributors on the Internet.
“This is an opportunity to get more disclosure and a better understanding of where money goes in local elections,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler, a Golden Valley DFLer and the House sponsor of the measure.
Another Winkler bill, that would require more disclosure by interest groups that spend money on Minnesota politics, appears unlikely to win approval this year.
Few rules at local level
State, legislative and most federal campaign spending information has long been available on the Web, but finding that information about mayoral, council and school board members has been far more difficult.
“It is an area with tremendous variation,” said Emily Shaw, national policy manager of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for openness in government.
Shaw could find no state that mandates local governments post campaign information online, as Minnesota would.
A bipartisan cohort of Minnesota lawmakers believes it is time to do so. The online disclosure measure passed the Senate with overwhelming support — only two senators voted against it. On Monday, the House followed suit on a 121-11 vote.
“Folks should be able … to find as much information about the candidates as they can,” said Blaine Rep. Tim Sanders, the House Republican lead on election issues.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said he is prepared to sign the measure if it reaches his desk.
Although Minnesota’s local governments do collect detailed information about local hopefuls who raise or spend more than $750 on an election, only some of the largest cities and counties make that information available online.
Most do not.
Kolb said it took about two weeks and several conversations before he could view past campaign finance information of his city officials. After Kolb’s request, the Crystal City Council voted to add campaign finance information to the other data available on its website.
“We just never thought about it, frankly,” Anne Norris, Crystal’s city manager. “I can count on one hand, maybe one finger, how many people have requested it over the last couple years.”
But the city was happy to arrange online posting.
“It’s no big deal,” she said.
The Minnesota League of Cities largely agrees. Ann Lindstrom, a League lobbyist, said members’ only concern is to make sure the mandate does not become too burdensome.
Both the House and Senate are considering doubling how much local candidates can receive per campaign contributor. Candidates seeking to represent a population of 100,000 or more could gather up to $1,000 from an individual in an election year; candidates vying to represent smaller territories could get up to $600, under the proposals.
But the House and Senate still differ on exactly how the state should structure the new online mandate. The two will have to compromise before the measure is sent to Dayton.
The Senate would allow local governments without websites — and just under 300 Minnesota cities still lack them — to be exempt. The House bill only allows an exemption for cities with fewer than 400 voters.
“As long as we are increasing the contribution limits, the information has to be readily available to the public,” he said.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @RachelSB