Short on cash, campaign board struggles to keep up

Campaign Finance Board director
Gary Goldsmith is executive director of Minnesota's Campaign Finance and Disclosure Board. Goldsmith, shown here in his office in St. Paul on March 27, 2012, says stagnant funding makes it difficult for his staff to do its job effectively.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

In 1998, DFL Rep. Mindy Greiling was invited to New Mexico to talk about Minnesota's relatively new ban on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers.

"We felt like heroes," Greiling said. "We were so proud of Minnesota."

At the time, Minnesota was seen as one of the more aggressive states when it came to limiting the influence of money on policy decisions, Greiling said. The gift ban was the centerpiece of those efforts.

Today, the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, which monitors political financing and lobbying, struggles to get all the resources and authority it needs from the Legislature.

Gary Goldsmith, the board's executive director, says stagnant funding makes it difficult for his staff to do its job effectively.

A new report by the State Integrity Investigation, a study that looked at each state's risk for corruption, underscores Goldsmith's concern: Minnesota scored lower than other states on some questions having to do with the board's ability to pursue all investigations.

Funding difficulties could make the board's job particularly tough this election year, when outside groups looking to influence campaigns and the vote on proposed amendments to the Minnesota Constitution are expected to dominate political spending.

"We will have at least one, and most likely more than one ballot question on the November ballot, and that means quite a number of new committees with a lot of complicated financial relationships," Goldsmith said.

THE CAMPAIGN FINANCE BOARD

Every year, candidates, lawmakers, lobbyists and political committees must disclose their fundraising, assets, advocacy and donations to the Campaign Finance Board.

Goldsmith's staff looks for errors in those documents and, in some instances, levies fines. The board also investigates complaints filed by outside groups.

"Lawmakers don't see transparency or disclosure as an important issue."

Goldsmith said he'd like to hire more staff to look into campaign finance violations, but can't afford it.

In fiscal year 2002, his office had nine staff members and a $674,000 annual budget. In subsequent years, funding increased slightly, but it wasn't enough to keep up with costs, Goldsmith said.

Now, the board has 7.6 staff members and a $689,000 annual budget, down from $730,000 during the previous fiscal year.

"One part of the board's mission is to develop greater confidence in the decision making of Minnesota officials," Goldsmith said. More staff "would allow us to go into some areas of examination of materials filed with us that we simply can't do now."

Goldsmith said the board has been aware of political committee treasurers using money for personal gain, but doesn't have resources to investigate, nor does it always have the authority.

The board's most recent budget cuts are a direct response to the state's budget deficit, said Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, who chairs the Minnesota House State Government Finance Committee.

"Everybody was affected with the budget we adopted last year," Lanning said.

In the next budget cycle, Lanning said his committee may consider increasing some of the board's fees to help offset the funding cuts.

TIED TO THE LEGISLATURE

The board's budget cuts are not unique because many states are facing deficits, said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, an organization that tracks political spending in the states.

But he added that long-term funding cuts reflect a more worrisome trend.

"I think if you went back and looked at the budget it would be declining over time, because lawmakers don't see transparency or disclosure as an important issue," Bender said.

Lawmakers have little incentive to give the agency that regulates them more authority, he added.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who led efforts to reform Minnesota's disclosure rules in the mid-1990s, said the board's reliance on the Legislature for money and authority puts it in a tough spot.

"If they get too aggressive about asking for it, is that going to help them? Maybe not," Marty said. "If they get too aggressive in enforcing something, is that going to make [lawmakers] want to provide them with funding?"

A 2011 bill that would have given the board broader authority underscores the inherent tension between the board and the Legislature.

The legislation stalled in both chambers when outside groups raised concerns to lawmakers about provisions in the bill involving ballot initiative spending. Ultimately, the board issued guidance requiring corporations that give $5,000 to a ballot measure to name donors who contribute $1,000 or more.

Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, agrees that the board is underfunded, but also believes the office isn't aggressive enough.

The board's "goal is to make people compliant with the law rather than enforce the law, and that's really the difference here," said Dean, whose group has filed complaints with the board in the past. "When the board then acts, it's really just giving people a slap on the wrist."

Goldsmith rejects the criticism that his board is too timid, pointing out that it does all it can within its statutory and funding limits.

"People don't know what's going on when the board goes into executive session and the board is involved in the investigative process," he said.

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