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Education Minnesota’s campaign spending far surpasses Chamber of Commerce’s so far

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions can spend as much as they wish to influence elections, so long as they do not donate directly to candidates. Elections experts predicted that the ruling would open the floodgates — particularly in the hard-fought governor’s race.

The pundits all predicted that the Republican-leaning Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which sued to make sure the corresponding Minnesota law was clarified in time for this fall’s election cycle, would go charging into the fray, big-bucks a-blazin’. But as of Sept. 14, the state’s most recent reporting deadline, this year the chamber’s Leadership Fund [PDF] had made a whopping $5,000 in independent expenditures.

By contrast, Education Minnesota had spent almost $700,000 [PDF] this year, according to state records. In addition to making $190,000 in independent expenditures of its own, the state’s largest teacher’s union gave $500,000 to the 2010 Fund, which in turn makes independent expenditures.

In fact, so far in 2010 Education Minnesota has outspent the business group nearly seven to one, spending more than $1.29 million to influence the outcome of all kinds of elections, versus expenditures by the chamber of $187,000.

This isn’t to say that as this year’s excruciatingly close election draws closer the chamber won’t turn on the taps to finance, say, a blitz of TV ads. But it is interesting. Particularly in light of the power the union exercises at the state Capitol, where a number of controversial reforms that might have helped Minnesota to win federal school grants withered during last year’s legislative session.

Some helpful background: Minnesota law sets fairly low limits for individual donations to campaigns. Individuals can donate up to $500 to candidates for the House and Senate, $2,000 to gubernatorial and judicial candidates, and $1,000 to most other candidates seeking state office.

Candidates must also negotiate a thicket of rules governing how much they may accept from funds belonging to political party caucuses and other partisan groups, and how much they may accept from political action committees, which are the traditional vehicle corporations and unions have long used to influence elections.

Much in the way water finds its own level, in recent decades political money seeking to prop up or destroy a particular candidate has found ways around the rules. In 2004, propelled in part by the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms, so-called 527 organizations burst into the spotlight. (So called because of the section of the tax code that allows their creation.) Groups like MoveOn.org and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth poured unprecedented amount of money into influencing elections.

Under the Supreme Court’s January ruling, corporations and unions have the same free-speech rights as individuals, and they can spend freely to influence politics so long as the money does not go to candidates. Expenditures may pay for advertising, direct mail or phone bank services. There is no limit on independent expenditures, and the messages they finance can be negative.

The first few pages of Education Minnesota’s most recent campaign finance disclosure are mind-numbingly predictable, listing donations of $250 to lawmaker after lawmaker, $2,000 to former gubernatorial hopeful Margaret Anderson Kelliher — the House speaker who last session helped to block reforms the union opposed — and, after she lost August’s primary, $2,000 to DFL nominee Mark Dayton. All told, the union gave $41,000 to individual candidates.

But … it gave $283,000 to political party units — all but $1,300 of it to DFL groups. It gave $55,000 to the pro-labor Working America Minnesota Political Fund and the aforementioned half-million to the new 2010 Fund. The fund is administered by Win Minnesota, which is overseen by one-time Mike Hatch manager Ken Martin.

On the other side of the aisle, the chamber may not be flooding the airwaves with ads lambasting candidates its members fear won’t be good for business, but plenty of other groups are making independent expenditures to benefit Republican gubernatorial hopeful Tom Emmer and others.

Most famous at the moment is MN Forward, which got $150,000 from Target, which lived to regret it after employees and shoppers alike protested Emmer’s stance on gay marriage. MN Forward’s disclosure [PDF] shows that the group has spent nearly $700,000 to influence elections and has nearly $1 million more in reserve.

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