Republicans aim to erase state’s campaign spending election laws

Published 8:49 pm Wednesday, May 3, 2017

ST. PAUL — Republicans are moving to erase Minnesota’s public campaign subsidies, which could reshape the fundraising fight in next year’s gubernatorial election and unleash more money into statewide and local elections.

Passed in 1974 as part of an anti-corruption wave triggered by President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, Minnesota’s subsidy has become ingrained in state elections. With all 201 legislative seats up for grabs last year, nearly nine of every 10 candidates agreed to limit their total campaign spending. In return, they shared in $2.2 million in public funding.

In 2014, when both Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican challenger Jeff Johnson accepted subsidies, that public money accounted for more than 20 percent of the $4.5 million spent on the race.

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But Republicans said the program is little more than welfare for politicians — and typically helps Democrats more. Democrats argue ending the subsidy will hurt less affluent candidates, and increase the influence of outside groups.

“There has been lots of pressure to try to weaken those laws,” said Democratic Sen. John Marty, a longtime advocate for campaign finance reform. “They have had great success assaulting the laws here and other states, largely through the courts.”

Minnesota is one of 13 states with a publicly funded campaign subsidy program. States like Maine, New Mexico, Connecticut and Arizona fully fund campaigns with state money, while others, like Florida, Hawaii and Minnesota, have hybrid systems that are a mix of public and private money.

Nick Nyhart, president of Every Voice Center, an advocacy group for publicly funded elections, said the subsidies make it possible for candidates to get elected without having to cozy up to lobbyists, special interest groups and wealthy donors.

“Politicians who want to decrease the voice of everyday voters … are completely out of step with American voters,” he said. “I think there are always incumbent politicians and special interest lobbyists who would prefer to see greater power in fewer hands.”

In Minnesota, residents can check a box on their tax forms indicating whether they want money to go to the subsidy and which party should get it. More money generally flows to Democrats since the state has traditionally leaned that direction.

Candidates have to raise a certain amount of money to qualify for subsidies; in return for the money, they agree to spending limits. Gubernatorial candidates can spend about $5.2 million; legislative candidates only about $63,000.

Rep. Matt Dean, a Republican running for governor in 2018, favors ending the subsidy, even though he won’t rule out using it if it’s still around next year. He said what’s needed is more transparency in where campaign money is coming from, and the subsidy doesn’t help with that.

“I think the biggest change over time since I have been here is the explosion of outside money and groups that have gone into races,” said Dean, of Dellwood. “With or without (spending limits), that is going to be the case.”

Republican Rep. Sarah Anderson, a lead advocate for ending the subsidy, put forward another argument. She said incumbents who get the subsidy but don’t need it often send it to their political parties, where it can be used in more competitive races.

Dayton didn’t take the subsidy in 2010, tapping his personal fortune to outspend Republican Tom Emmer $4.7 million to $2.8 million as he won his first term. Four years later, he chose to take it, receiving more than $540,000 to Johnson’s less than $400,000.

Dayton said he’s against eliminating the subsidy, calling it “one of the last remaining incentives for candidates to limit their campaign spending.”

St. Paul Rep. Erin Murphy, a Democratic candidate for governor, also supports keeping the subsidy. She said it allows candidates to spend more time with constituents and less time courting high-profile donors.

“It puts the brakes on some of the egregious spending that we have seen in other parts of the country,” she said.

The public money is critical to third-party candidates and their smaller campaigns, Independence Party chairman Phil Fuhrer said. He said his party’s candidate for governor in 2014 was doomed before he started because he couldn’t raise enough money to qualify for the subsidy. The IP lost its major party status in Minnesota that year because none of its statewide candidates for governor and other constitutional offices got the required 5 percent.