Doughnut booth debate sprinkled with fundraising worries

There's no disputing there's a lot of untraceable dough in today's campaigns. But Minnesota lawmakers could soon crack down on doughnuts in the political system.

A Republican bill that targets a State Fair mini-doughnut booth operated by a local DFL Party chapter is stirring debate at the state Capitol. The House State Government Finance Committee spent about 35 minutes Thursday discussing a bill that would require more disclosure about proceeds from such sales and prior warning to buyers that they could be feeding political activity.

The panel didn't vote on the bill, but it could wind up as part of a bigger budget proposal. A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate but has yet to gain a hearing.

Rep. Randy Jessup, R-Shoreview, called the booth a "black stain" at the State Fair. He passed around photos showing the booth located outside the fair's grandstand without any signs it was tied to a political party, saying some buyers have been duped as a result.

"Is it right to deceive people making a purchase and then having it become a political contribution? I don't think it does," Jessup said.

The stand's operator is registered with state campaign finance regulators as the "10th Ward & Rural Ramsey County (fka DFL Donut Booth)." In 2016, the organization reported $206,000 in income and spent $181,000 -- one-third of that on contributions to other DFL party units.

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In general under Minnesota campaign law, contributions of less than $20 can be recorded anonymously. Over that, committees that raise campaign money must obtain details from donors.

Rep. Tim O'Driscoll, R-Sartell, wondered if someone could subvert disclosure by buying loads of doughnuts.

"I bet out of the 40,000 bags of doughnutsthat were sold, somebody bought more than $20 at one point in time," O'Driscoll said. "That $20 needs to be tracked if someone comes in and purchases more than $20 at one time."

Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board executive director Jeff Sigurdson noted that all of the Donut Booth's intake is reported as "miscellaneous income" from its sales.

"It could very well be that going forward, regardless of this legislation, they should be reporting those as contributions," Sigurdson said. He said there are existing laws against intentional circumvention of campaign donation requirements by those attempting to avoid disclosure through repeated donations in small increments.

Democrats on the committee complained that Republicans were focused on the doughnut booth while bottling up legislation that would require more disclosure of campaign finances by groups that are far more active in state elections.

"These folks spend millions of dollars particularly in the last week of an election to influence them but not identify who they are," said Rep. Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul, who asked Jessup about whether he'd support a bill to shine more light on that activity. "Is that something we can count on your support for given your strong interest in transparency?"

Jessup said he hadn't taken time to review that bill.