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DFL legislators blast GOP proposal to lift limits on contributions from lobbyists and PACs

The GOP’s state government finance bill proposes to remove the limit on how much total money state candidates can raise from lobbyists and political action committees.

State Sen. Jim Carlson
State Sen. Jim Carlson

Last week, two political mailings criticizing DFL Sen. Jim Carlson were sent to voters in the lawmaker’s Eagan district. That was on top of the three mailings sent out opposing Carlson in January, and one put out the weekend before the election last fall.

All of which might be expected for someone in the midst of a re-election fight. But Carlson isn’t. He wasn’t even on the ballot in November, nor is he again until 2016.

Welcome to the new world of campaign spending, where the campaign season never really stops, no political office is too small to be targeted by a flood of cash, and a whole lot of campaign spending isn’t reported to the public.

On Monday morning, DFL legislators joined forces with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to say the problem could get worse if a bill from House Republicans becomes law. The GOP’s state government finance bill proposes to remove the limit on how much total money state candidates can raise from lobbyists and political action committees (PACs). It would also repeal the state’s campaign subsidy program. At the same time, a DFL proposal to require reporting from certain nonprofits — which can skirt campaign reporting laws by not using specific language like “vote for” or “vote against” — has stalled in the House, they said.

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“It’s bad enough that we have been stymied in our effort to pass legislation that would expose the secret money in politics,” Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said. “But to take the next step and to get rid of a system that has served the state very, very well, it’s unacceptable. It’s outrageous.”

Much of the new spending is a result of the landmark 2010 United States Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United, which gave corporations and labor groups much of the same rights to political speech as individuals have, opening campaigns up to unlimited spending from those groups. The Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board estimates there was nearly $34 million spent by candidates and PACs in the 2014 election. 

Both sides saw millions of dollars from outside groups poured into campaigns. Dayton fended off a challenge from the right, but House Republicans took control of the state House.

Dayton went as far as to say he will veto the House GOP bill that lifts those fundraising limits. He said in some U.S. House races last fall, Minnesotans saw a “veritable flood of special interest literature, direct mail and the like to distort positions, to try and destroy candidates and to try and buy those elections,” he said. “It’d be a terrible direction for Minnesota.” 

State Rep. Sarah Anderson
State Rep. Sarah Anderson

GOP Rep. Sarah Anderson, of Plymouth, who authored the state government finance bill, said she eliminated the campaign public subsidy program because there are some Democrats who have safe races and take public subsidy but don’t need it. They then donate money to other DFL campaign causes. “I don’t think that’s how the taxpayers intended this program to be used,” she said. 

She said there have also been constitutional questions about putting aggregate limits on campaigns.

The Republicans bill also keeps all disclosure requirements in place, she said, which is important to the public. As for the proposal to crack down on reporting for nonprofit spending groups, Anderson noted that the bill couldn’t get passed last year, when the DFL controlled the Legislature.

Among other things, the bill would lump all “electioneering communication” 30 days before the August primary and 60 days before the general election into state disclosure law. But Minnesotans Citizens Concerned for Life and the National Rifle Association sent emails opposing the measure, and the measure stalled in the DFL-controlled House. 

“It’s very clear that there is broad bipartisan opposition to that bill,” she said. “They couldn’t get it passed when they controlled government.”