Proposed changes to campaign spending, lobbying laws put on ice

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The grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol are covered in slushy, wet snow.
The grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol are covered in slushy, wet snow.
Brian Bakst | MPR News 2018

Updated: 3:31 p.m.

Sensing resistance, Minnesota’s campaign and lobbying regulatory board intends to hold back on sweeping legislative recommendations that would redefine advocacy rules and expand a program aimed at encouraging small-dollar contributions.

At a meeting Friday, the six-member board decided instead to write a letter to the Legislature to encourage a hearty debate over a campaign and lobbying structure that hasn’t changed much in recent years. Board members said they and board staffers would work to refine their suggestions in the meantime.

Board Chair Robert Moilanen said the letter would stress to lawmakers that current laws are outdated but acknowledge there is “not a consensus on the solution.”

Board initiatives that had been months — or longer — in the making would have recommended:

  • New accounting for how lobbyists report their activity, including a registration requirement for efforts by past legislators who make introductions to their ex-colleagues or otherwise open doors to formal lobbying.

  • A firmer definition of what qualifies as “express advocacy” for which outside groups must document their spending, a way to pull more types of campaign actions into the sunlight.

  • Allow people to get tax refunds for a larger amount of contributions to a candidate in an effort to level the political playing field between smaller contributors and max-out donors.

All of those recommendations and several others have encountered pushback and might have had trouble gaining bipartisan backing traditionally needed to get through.

Much of Friday’s discussion centered around a possible lobbying law update.

Moilanen said suggested changes were aimed at “providing more meaningful information to the public” about who is trying to influence policy.

Lobbyists would have had to turn over more information about the bills or issues they spent the most time on — at the Capitol, before the Public Utilities Commission and before metropolitan governments.

Kathryn Hahne, who spoke on behalf of the Minnesota Government Relations Council, said the lobbying community isn’t opposed to doing things differently. But she cautioned that the approach under consideration wouldn’t necessarily improve public understanding.

“It’s burdensome and unlikely to help the public understand the issues,” Hahne said of the proposed accounting requirements.

Hahne said during her decades as a lobbyist she sometimes spent more time trying to untangle smaller policy matters than working through weightier topics with a broader impact.

After a lengthy discussion, board member and former legislator Margaret “Peggy” Leppik said it was clear the proposal needed more work.

“Let’s cool our jets just a bit here and see what we can come up with,” she said.

Carol Flynn, another board member who also previously served in the Legislature, said it was important to at least get something moving before the Legislature. She said requiring lobbyists to list their session focus areas more clearly is “not unreasonable.”

Moilanen urged the government relations community to propose acceptable alternatives.

“It’s very easy to find problems; it’s very difficult to find solutions,” he said.

On the campaign finance front, one major initiative was to boost the political contribution refund, which now allows people to get reimbursement for one $50 contribution per year to state candidates, or $100 for married couples. The stagnant figure would have risen to $200 and $400 respectively.

Board members contended it would have tracked with a push by candidates nationally to focus on small-dollar donors as much as they do those who write the big checks.

But the program also would have come with an additional cost of $9 million to $12 million to present budgets. Board executive director Jeff Sigurdson said he was informed by Gov. Tim Walz’s office that the first-term DFLer was not on board with the plan for the upcoming year.

Walz’s spokesperson Kayla Castaneda said he isn’t closing the door to the idea.

“Governor Walz has long been a champion for increasing transparency, empowering grassroots donors, and doing away with dark money in political fundraising,” Castaneda said. “While he supports efforts to increase the Political Contribution Refund program in Minnesota, he encourages the campaign finance board and legislators to work with his state agencies to address potential fiscal and logistical implications as they determine a final proposal.”

The “express advocacy” change that would put more donations to independent groups into the disclosure realm stirred passions on both ends. Spending on political communication would be subject to disclosure if a reasonable person could take it as an effort to promote the election or defeat of a candidate; now certain words, such as “vote for” or “elect,” trigger the disclosure rules.

Americans For Prosperity, a conservative group active on the state and national fronts, voiced concern that “these provisions would only serve to limit discourse and undermine free speech” and could cause organizations active in civic engagement to “simply choose to stay on the sidelines.”

Ronald Bardal of the group Minnesota Citizens for Clean Elections said change is needed to combat so-called dark money.

“Dark money is a hazard to our election system because the contributor cannot be identified and held accountable for misleading and false publicity about a candidate,” he wrote to the board.

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