By Adam Wollner
Center for Public Integrity
State governments from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic seaboard are attempting to blunt the influence of free-spending super PACs and nonprofits by allowing people to contribute more money to political candidates.
Six governors — three Republicans and three Democrats — have signed bills increasing campaign contribution limits so far in 2013, while lawmakers in nearly a dozen other states have introduced similar legislation, a Center for Public Integrity review found.
The increase in limits follows the recent explosion of election activity by outside groups in the post-Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission era, which has led to candidates being attacked by super PACs and 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations that often spend more money on advertising than the candidates themselves.
In hopes of gaining greater control over their campaigns, some state lawmakers are pushing to allow candidates and parties to raise more funds while, in a few cases, imposing new restrictions on independent groups.
In March, Wyoming became the first state to ease restrictions on campaign contributions, raising limits from $1,000 to $1,500 for local candidates and to $2,500 for statewide candidates. The legislation also placed a cap on donations to candidates from political action committees, which previously had no limit.
“What we tried to take was a balanced approach,” Republican state Rep. Tim Stubson said. “We were really trying to incentivize individual giving, which is more transparent.”
Florida and Maryland lawmakers also sought to bring more transparency to their states’ respective campaign finance systems, using higher political contribution limits as a tool to forge bipartisan compromise.
The bill Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed into law May 1 increased caps on individual donations to legislative candidates from $500 to $1,000 and to statewide candidates from $500 to $3,000.
Soon after, Democratic Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley approved legislation bumping up limits from $4,000 to $6,000 per election cycle.
Both laws also impose more frequent reporting deadlines for political candidates and groups, while Maryland’s measure gives its state elections board more power to penalize campaign finance violators.
Campaign finance bills in Arizona and Minnesota, meanwhile, focused strictly on contribution limits.
Arizona Republicans raised contribution limits in April to $2,500 per election to legislative and statewide candidates — up from $488 and $1,010 respectively. The legislation also raised political action committees’ limits on donations to candidates and committees from $2,000 to $5,000.
“I realize people don’t like money going to politicians but at the end of the day I suspect they like money going to special interest groups even less,” said Arizona Rep. J.D. Mesnard, the Republican sponsor of the bill.
In Minnesota, donors may now give twice as much to statewide candidates — $4,000 — and local candidates — $1,000 — during an election year. The Democrat-sponsored bill, which passed with bipartisan support, originally included provisions requiring greater disclosure from outside groups, but lawmakers dropped the language.
Democrats in Connecticut were initially reluctant to raise limits.
Still, they approved a measure this month doubling the amount individuals may contribute to political parties. The law allows parties to spend unlimited amounts of money on candidates participating in the state’s public financing system. Lawmakers also forced all groups making independent expenditures close to the date of an election to disclose their top five donors.
“No bill is perfect,” Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy said in a statement after signing the bill into law. “But this bill makes Connecticut a national leader in requiring disclosure and transparency.”
Proponents of increased limits say candidates need more money to fight off attacks from outside groups
But Ed Bender, the executive director of the National Institute for Money in State Politics, argues that candidates still won’t come close to competing financially with money pouring in from outside groups, and that this type of legislation will only further empower a small group major campaign donors.
“It’s further shifting the mandate for candidates to spend more time with the few people who give them more,” Bender said.
Wisconsin appears poised to become the next state to enact higher contribution limits.
The state Assembly overwhelmingly approved a measure this month that increases the amount — from $10,000 to 20,000 — that a donor may give to statewide candidates.
Limits for Senate candidates would rise from $1,000 to $2,000 and for Assembly candidates from $500 to $1,000. It’s unclear, however, whether the Senate will take up the bill before the end of the legislative session.
Both chambers in Montana’s state legislature considered increasing contribution limits, but the House-initiated measure was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock who said he would have accepted higher donation limits if they were coupled with measures requiring greater transparency.
In Tennessee, the state’s House of Representatives in mid-April narrowly rejected a Republican-sponsored bill that would have nearly doubled the amount political parties could donate to statewide candidates.
The legislation would have also eliminated the requirement that corporations disclose their political contributions. Insurance companies would have also been permitted to make campaign donations — activity illegal under current Tennessee law.
“The people of Tennessee don’t want this because they know that money corrupts,” said Mike Turner, the chairman of the state’s House Democratic Caucus, in a press release following the vote.
The Vermont legislature came close to reaching a deal that would have slightly increased donation limits for statewide candidates while also expanding reporting requirements for super PACs and making campaign finance data more accessible to the public.
But elected officials couldn’t agree on all the details before the session ended in May.
Vermont Sen. Jeanette White, a Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation, said she expects lawmakers to revisit the issue next January.
Six other states — California, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Rhode Island — have seen lawmakers this year introduce legislation that would allow state candidates to raise more funds for their campaigns. But in each case, the bill did not make it out of committee.
Seven states – Iowa, Missouri, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah – have attempted to lower limits and failed. In every state but Utah, the legislation was brought forward by Democrats.
The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org.