Pawlenty's PAC means fewer restrictions, more cash

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
MPR Photo/Steve Mullis

Republican Tim Pawlenty's new quest for campaign cash will allow him to haul in larger checks without the restrictions on lobbyist and other special interest money that he has faced as Minnesota governor.

Pawlenty disclosed this week that he is about to form a national fundraising committee. He insists it is geared toward aiding GOP candidates in 2010 and not part of a 2012 presidential campaign strategy, but political action committees are often a launching pad for White House hopefuls and the results are used as a gauge of political viability.

The Freedom First PAC, as it will be called, will operate under federal rules. Pawlenty shut down his state campaign account two weeks ago. Therefore, he isn't bound by key Minnesota campaign finance laws, including one that bars donations from special interest groups to state lawmakers while state policies and budget decisions are being made. So even before the first dollar has been given to Pawlenty's PAC, some are voicing concern about a perceived loophole.

"He's going to be making critical decisions," said Mike Dean, who leads Common Cause Minnesota. "I would hate to see people trying to use his federal PAC to gain influence in the decisions he's making."

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Pawlenty stands apart from other Republicans mentioned as top-tier GOP presidential candidates - Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin - in that he still has the power to enact laws.

Going forward he can ask for $5,000 from each donor, much more than the $2,000 per person he was able to solicit at the height of his last campaign. For 2009, his contribution limit was $500.

Dean wants Pawlenty to voluntarily follow state law to avoid the appearance that lobbyists are trying to curry favor.

Minnesota's prohibition on lobbyist and political committee donations is in force when state lawmakers hold their annual legislative session. In 2010, the session starts in February and could run until late May.

Pawlenty political adviser Alex Conant declined comment, saying it was premature to discuss fundraising for a PAC that hasn't formally been established. The Freedom First kickoff fundraiser is set for Nov. 4 in Minneapolis.

Lobbyist donations to Pawlenty's PAC could be harder to track than money from those givers before. Unlike the state campaign finance forms, the federal reports don't classify lobbyists any differently than other individual contributors.

Gary Goldsmith, executive director of Minnesota's campaign finance board, said to his knowledge, the board has never issued an advisory opinion on the situation Pawlenty's move creates.

The Federal Elections Commission has offered indirect advice. In 1994, the agency concluded that a Democratic state senator running for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota wasn't covered by the state restrictions on lobbyist donations.

Goldsmith said Pawlenty scenario is made more complex because his PAC is distinct from the type of campaign account a candidate uses while running for office.

"Is the donation to this new organization even considered a donation to one of the people behind the organization itself or is it in fact a donation to the organization?" Goldsmith asked rhetorically. "Only if you get past that question would the question of whether there is a prohibition become relevant."

State campaign reports show that since 2001, Pawlenty has accepted about $80,000 in lobbyist money and almost $152,000 from political funds, which are the state equivalent of PACs. That's out of total contributions of $9.3 million over the span.

One explanation is that Minnesota law limits the proportion of money candidates can raise from those sources and from major donors. The cap is 20 percent of the spending limit for that race.

Pawlenty can use the money from the new PAC to support his travel, assist Republicans on next year's ballot and take other steps to raise his profile. He will get to choose whether he'll file monthly or quarterly finance reports.

Among his possible rivals, Romney has raised the most money so far, with the former Massachusetts governor pulling in $1.6 million during the first six months of this year. Palin, the former Alaska governor, collected $733,000. Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, took in $304,000.