Wyoming shouldn’t rush to remove campaign finance limits
by Kerry Drake
— June 3, 2014
Campaign finance reform took a major step backward two months ago, along with eroding voters’ already shaky confidence that everyone has an equal ability to influence the election process.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down limits on the total amount of money individuals can contribute to candidates for federal office and political fundraising groups in primary, general and special elections every two years.
Now, two organizations – the Virginia-based Citizens for Competitive Politics and the Wyoming Liberty Group – contend our Legislature should repeal campaign finance limits it passed in 2013 so the state doesn’t get sued. Some of these limits haven’t even gone into effect yet, but last week a legislative committee voted to draft a bill to scrap them.
Wyoming lawmakers shouldn’t make a hasty decision to get rid of limits on political donations they strongly favored only a year ago. Specific caps on total contributions in federal races have been found unconstitutional, but the laws are still in effect. If a proposed constitutional amendment that addresses the Supreme Court’s concerns about federal races gains traction and is passed, it could make state action unnecessary.
Think about it — when was the last time the state of Wyoming backed down from its position on the basis of something the federal government might do? Why not see the impact campaign finance reform has on the state’s political process before prematurely pulling the plug? Let’s look at the possible consequences of changing Wyoming campaign finance law.
“Opening the system to unlimited money will lead to deep cynicism in the electorate if people feel they cannot make a meaningful difference in the process,” said Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, a coalition for good government.
With Americans’ perception of Congress at an all-time-low, more cynicism about government is the last thing we need.
How did we get to this point? It took a conservative one-two punch by the nation’s highest court that effectively gives relatively few wealthy donors the power to control who is elected in America. The first was the landmark Citizens United ruling in 2010 that determined corporations and labor unions can contribute an unlimited amount of so-called “soft” money to Super PACs (political action committees).
That was followed by the recent McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission ruling, which saw the Supreme Court uphold limits on individuals’ donations to federal candidates, but declared unconstitutional “aggregate limits” on the amount a person can contribute to candidates, political parties and PACs in a two-year election cycle.
Wyoming is one of less than a dozen states in the nation that now has aggregate limits on political spending. Currently the limit in the state is $25,000 every two-year election period, but a law passed last year will go into effect in 2015 is scheduled to raise the cap to $50,000 unless the Legislature changes its mind.
In addition to lobbying lawmakers to repeal the aggregate limits, the two groups contend the state should immediately stop enforcing the law.
Two states have already responded to the McCutcheon ruling, and others are considering changing their laws, too. The Maine Ethics Commission lifted that state’s $25,000 cap on individual campaign contributions, and the equivalent Massachusetts agency removed its $12,500 limit on state political donations. But in Wyoming, barring an expensive special session, such a decision would have to be made by legislators next year at the earliest.
Meanwhile, enforcement of the current law is in the hands of local and state prosecutors, who decide if charges are filed against suspected violators. Does the state’s attorney general really want to tell the public a law on the books is just being ignored?
Last week at a meeting in Sheridan, the Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee decided to draft a bill to remove the state’s aggregate cap next year. It also approved drafting a separate bill that would eliminate the amount of money that can be given to PACs — $7,500 to any statewide candidate and $3,000 to any other candidate. It’s a law that won’t even go into effect until Jan. 1, 2015.
Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne) voted against the corporations committee drafting such bills. While he doesn’t favor a cap on PAC donations, Byrd told the Casper Star-Tribune he thinks there should be some controls on the groups until the Wyoming campaign finance system is more transparent so people can better track donations.
“We enacted a law, and it hasn’t even hit the ground,” he told reporter Laura Hancock of the Casper Star-Tribune. “We have no idea what the effect is.”
A CBS News poll last month drew a lot of news coverage when it found only 5 percent of Americans think members of Congress have done a good enough job to be re-elected. But also disturbing was the fact three out of four people think wealthy Americans have a better chance than others of influencing the election process.
Given the direction our courts are taking in eliminating major campaign finance reforms that were passed as a result of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, those numbers don’t bode well for encouraging people to participate in elections.
The conservative majority in McCutcheon maintained the threat of corruption to the political system does not justify aggregate campaign limits. But it viewed corruption in a very narrow way, as illegal activities by officials as a direct result of campaign contributions. The court’s liberal minority argued removing the caps and allowing donors to channel millions of dollars to candidates or campaigns produces “precisely the kind of ‘corruption’ or ‘appearance of corruption’ that previously led the court to hold aggregate limits constitutional.”
It’s the influence ultra-wealthy donors have on elected officials and the access their money buys them that should be of major concern. Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming knows all too well how money leads to different treatment of constituents.
In an appendix to their dissent, the four liberal justices noted a quote from Simpson that spells out something very wrong with our political system:
“Large donors of both hard and soft money receive special treatment. No matter how busy a politician may be during the day, he or she will always make time to see donors who gave large amounts of money. Staffers … know who the big donors are, and those people always get their phone calls returned first and are allowed to see the member [of Congress] when others are not.”
In “Pricele$$,” a 2010 documentary, Simpson explained such undue influence “looks like hell to the average guy and so he’s not even going to vote, he’s just going to say ‘stick it!’ and then he won’t run [for office].”
Is it any wonder why people have lost confidence in politicians and our electoral system?
Removing the aggregate limits might not actually affect Wyoming races. The National Institute on Money in State Politics recently conducted a study that found that no state residents donated the maximum aggregate amount in the last election cycle. If they didn’t pony up $25,000, what’s the likelihood that a donor is going to hit the $50,000 mark that goes into effect in 2015?
But one effect of having unlimited contributions to PACs may be more expensive campaigns, both at the state and local levels, because candidates with access to cash are inclined to spend it to press their advantage over opponents. Potential first-time candidates with few resources may be less likely to throw their hats in the ring if they fear the cost of running will be so high they can’t compete, especially against well-known incumbents who often go unchallenged now.
There are enough disincentives to people campaigning for office in Wyoming. We don’t need to unnecessarily add another to the list. Allowing the incredibly rich to determine who wins may be the way federal races are going, but it doesn’t have to be that way here.
This story was updated to attribute Rep. Byrd’s quote to Laura Hancock’s report in the Casper Star-Tribune.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.
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