League of Women Voters claims campaign contribution limit increase is bad news

02/14/13 Janelle Irwin
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Proposed legislation that is moving its way through Tallahassee would increase the amount of money individuals can contribute to political campaigns from $500 to $10,000. During a conference call Thursday, Lloyd Leonard, director of advocacy for the League of Women Voters said the proposal would discourage some people from writing checks to candidates.

“We need to have more participation by a larger number people in our government and the way to do that is to encourage small contributions.”

To prove their point, campaign finance reform advocates looked at other states. Adam Skaggs is senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He currently lives in New York where officials enacted a public campaign finance fund for local elections in the 80’s.

“And the effect of this has been transformative. On the one hand, regular voters are incentivized to make small donations because they know that even a modest donation of $25, $50 or $100 will actually mean something to a candidate. Right now contributions under $175 are matched at a 6 to 1 ratio, so if I make a $50 contribution I know that that will be worth $350 to the candidate because they’ll get $300 of public matching funds. So, it’s incentivized voters to get involved and it’s incentivized candidates to depend not on deep pocketed special interest donors, but on their constituents.”

But lawmakers in Florida are taking an entirely different approach to cleaning up election finance laws. The bill filed by Representative Rob Schenck of Spring Hill aims to discourage individuals from contributing to funds called Committees of Continuing Existence, or CCEs, which have no cap on contributions. Those groups can’t advocate for a specific candidate, but can fund ads and other campaign expenses for issues. But Skaggs doubts the measure would do much to limit the amount of money given to those groups.

“The fact of the matter is that groups and wealthy individuals will always route money to outside groups because it allows candidates – it creates sort of a plausible deniability for candidates. Candidates can say, ‘look, I have no control over those attack ads that are being run against my opponent’ and if you want to be able to run the kind of mud slinging, hard hitting attack ads that candidates get a little queasy about putting their own names on, the perfect vehicle for that is routing money to outside groups.”

Skaggs said high contribution caps also tend to favor incumbent candidates because they have access to contributors with deeper pockets.

“So, essentially, the higher the contribution limits in the state, the more of an advantage that incumbents have because they’re able to use those high contribution limits to amass funds that dissuade many challengers from even attempting to unseat them.”

There are also some ethical challenges that come with high dollar campaigns. Leonard calls things like Super Pacs, CCEs and high dollar campaign finance caps ‘legalized bribery.’ He said it gives incumbents and even challengers the chance to approach wealthy donors with campaign promises that are contingent on writing a check with lots of zeros.

“And that concern – the extortion concern is one that we have seen at the national level that many of the very responsible business groups are concerned about because frankly they’re tired of getting shaken down in this process. So, raising contribution limits really takes the cap off to this system of bribery and extortion that our democracy shouldn’t be living with.”

Florida currently has a pretty low individual contribution limit compared to some states. The Brennan Center for Justice’s Skaggs said Illinois had no cap on individual campaign finance until 2011.

“What occurred in the state was an array of scandals and very troubling corruption in the state house that resulted in the convictions of two governors – Governor George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich and after that just succession of scandals, the Illinois legislature saw fit to enact a $5,000 individual contribution limit.”

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford has offered a bit of a compromise aimed at appeasing critics – increase the limit to $10,000 and see the required finance reporting deadlines shortened. That, in theory, would give voters the chance to see who was financing certain candidates faster. But Diedre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida said that bargain might not hold up.

“So we end up with much larger contribution limits and perhaps only a temporary improvement in transparency.”

Speaker Weatherford and Representative Schneck did not respond to interview requests by deadline. The legislation has moved through the state ethics and elections subcommittee and is now in the appropriations committee.

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