THEY CALLED IT a good first step, but it may have been a step in the wrong direction. Four years ago, Minnesota enacted tough limits on how much money lobbyists, political action committees (PACs), and private citizens can give directly to political candidates. The goal was to limit the influence of money in politics. But the so-called reforms designed to prevent money's corrupting influences are only making the money and its influence harder to track.
The Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action (MAPA) set up a computer database to follow the money flow in last year's elections. It was the first full election cycle since the reforms were enacted, and the study showed direct donations to candidates fell. MAPA says, unfortunately, special interests found other ways to get their money into the political game. Instead of bundles of cold, hard cash going directly to candidates, "soft money" was piped into politics through a handful of other means.
Nowadays, a citizen who wants to buy influence can write checks to the candidate, to one or more party caucuses or political parties, or to any number of PACs that can send money to parties, caucuses, and campaigns. "Only one of those avenues is limited, the direct contributions to candidates," says MAPA Co-Director Dave Mann. "Everything else is unlimited. That person can give as much as they want to those other entities." Overall, donations to parties and caucuses shot up nearly 150 percent last year, topping $8 million.
"We haven't curbed the amount of big money in politics. Overall there's more," says MAPA Research Director Ellen Weiss. "And the amount the parties and caucuses are giving to candidates has gone up more than 75 percent. What has happened is that parties and caucuses have become a big funnel. Groups are still spending their money, they're just giving it to the parties and caucuses, who are passing it on to candidates."
MAPA uses a broader definition of special interests than most politics-watchers, putting PACs, lobbyists, and large individual donors in the mix. Those large individual donors are not usually considered part of the problem. But donations from wealthy individuals and powerful families nearly equal the amount given by PACs. In some cases, the same people who make large individual donations are also writing big checks to PACs. Weiss says writing multiple checks helps hide the level of their influence.
The bottom line for MAPA is that large amounts of money corrupt politics, but others disagree. "I think making contributions is part of participating in this democracy," says Bill Blazar, senior vice president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. "Our PAC makes contributions, individuals make contributions, and everybody who is effected by the Legislature has the right to contribute, and it's part of participating."
Chamber members support "business-friendly" candidates through its PAC. While some PACs, like the Chamber's, only give to candidates who support their views, others want to make sure their money's with the winner, no matter who that is.
"Nearly a third of the big money contributors actually gave to both DFLers and Republicans," says Weiss. "It's not a matter of giving to the party you're ideologically aligned with, or somebody you think is going to best represent your interests. Double giving is a way to have access."
There's no doubt that donors expect something for their money. When the Legislature passed an education bill opposed by the Minnesota Education Association, the group threatened it may change its campaign donation policy. Bob Pohlad, son of Twins owner Carl Pohlad, has openly admitted his family gives money to both parties to get access.
A longtime campaign finance reformer, state Sen. John Marty says the 1993 changes have probably given donors less bang for their buck, but he adds the reforms also strengthen party and caucus power over members. Caucuses set the Legislature's agenda, deciding if and when bills are debated and voted on. Money simply adds to that power.
Both Marty, a Roseville Democrat, and Republican state Rep. Steve Sviggum are working to toughen campaign laws and lessen the influence of money on Minnesota politics. Sviggum's bill would eliminate PACs, set campaign-spending limits, and keep state money out of elections. The two are finding few people willing to debate their ideas. "Who opposes campaign reform? A lot of people. Who's willing to speak out and say they oppose it? Not many," says Marty. "The vast majority of people in both parties, I don't want to say they like it, but they're comfortable with it, the system has worked for them, they got elected, they're in office because of the current system. Any time you change that, you're jeopardizing their current positions."
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