Dough Boys

Lawmakers wanted to reform campaign finance laws this year. So what happened?

On January 21, Hamline University political science and law professor David Schultz met with House Minority Leader Matt Entenza. The reason for their meeting was to discuss possible changes to Minnesota's campaign finance laws. At Entenza's behest, Schultz had drafted a series of suggestions for tightening contribution limits and broadening disclosure requirements.

At the time, Entenza was facing intense scrutiny for pouring money into DFL-affiliated organizations in the final weeks of the 2004 election campaign. The St. Paul lawmaker and his wife, Lois Quam, an executive with UnitedHealth Group, donated some $600,000 to DFL causes during the election cycle. The scope of the couple's political benevolence, however, was not disclosed until after the election--when the Democrats picked up 13 seats in the House and came within one victory of toppling the Republican majority.

Schultz laid out eight suggested changes to Minnesota's campaign finance laws. Under his proposal, all political donations--whether to so-called 527 groups such as 21st Century Democrats (the organization that received much of Entenza's support last year) or directly to campaigns--would have to be disclosed within 48 hours. In addition, all contributions would be limited to $1,000. There were also measures designed to curb attack ads in the final weeks of campaigns. Many of the changes mimic those implemented in 2002 at the federal level through the McCain-Feingold bill.

Money talks: State Rep. Tom Emmer has tried--so far unsuccessfully--to bring campaign finance reform to the Captiol
David Fick
Money talks: State Rep. Tom Emmer has tried--so far unsuccessfully--to bring campaign finance reform to the Captiol

"It was basically my dream bill," says Schultz, a past head of Common Cause Minnesota. "If we passed this bill we'd have had the best campaign finance laws in the country."

Entenza apparently lost interest in reforming the state's campaign finance laws once the furor over his personal contributions died down. But Schultz's proposal was eventually picked up by Rep. Tom Emmer, an eccentric freshman Republican from Delano. Emmer has made waves this year by championing chemical castration of sex offenders and attempting to strip Minnesota AIDS Project of all state funding.

He was motivated, in part, by disgust at Entenza's underhanded DFL financial support. "What he did in my estimation was unethical and it was clearly a way to bend the rules, but it wasn't illegal," says Emmer. However, he also makes it clear that financial shenanigans are endemic to both major parties. "It's driven by special interest groups giving donations, tons of money to both caucuses," Emmer says.

There are dollar figures to back Emmer's assertion. In 2004, according to a study recently completed by Schultz, large donors, lobbyists, and political action committees spent $94,821 per legislator to influence state legislative races and policy decisions.

In March Emmer's bill passed out of the House Civil Law and Elections Committee intact. While in a second committee, the provision limiting the size of contributions was stripped out. The disclosure requirements, which Emmer deemed the most important element of the bill, however, passed to the house floor in April. "I want total transparency," he says.

Initially, Emmer was optimistic that the bill would be passed, but once it got to the floor, support suddenly dissipated. Various interest groups, most notably Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, stepped up their attacks on the measure. The anti-choice nonprofit group passed out literature condemning the bill and told house members that the vote would be counted in the organization's influential legislative scorecards, even though the issue has nothing to do with abortion.

"What a crock of crap that is," says Emmer, who is pro-life and was endorsed by the MCCL in 2004. He's now disgusted by the group's high-handed tactics: "I've told them to knock it off. I don't ever want to hear from them again. I don't appreciate people passing me notes while I'm in committee telling me how to vote."

The measure never made it to a full House vote. Schultz says that he called Entenza--a potential candidate for attorney general next year--to try to spur some action on it, but got no response. Emmer also believes that the DFL leader didn't want the bill to pass. "This is extensive and important reform and Matt could have had his name all over it, and he just disappeared," Emmer says.

(Entenza did not return a call seeking comment.)

A companion bill in the Senate was originally championed by John Hottinger, the veteran St. Peter DFLer. According to three different people who met with him on the matter, Hottinger initially expressed enthusiasm for the bill and promised to push it through the Senate. The measure, however, never even got a hearing in committee.

"There's two reasons you carry a bill: to support it or kill it," says Schultz. "I'm fundamentally convinced that Hottinger does not support campaign finance reform."

"He had no intention of doing anything with that bill," says Joe Marble, co-founder of the advocacy group Minnesotans for Responsible Government. "He just basically stuffed it in the drawer."

Hottinger, not surprisingly, disputes this assessment. He blames the MCCL for the inability to pass campaign finance reform and says that the only way to fix the system is to introduce full public financing--a remote prospect at best. (Such a measure failed in a Senate committee this year.) "It's not so much that I don't support it," Hottinger says of the Emmer bill. "It's that it's an incomplete proposal."

Emmer attempted to reintroduce the campaign finance bill at the start of the special session, but it went nowhere. And he's not optimistic about the prospects for reform any time soon: "The big money over there is just sick."

 
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