Although many voters seem to think of government as a breeding ground for scandal and corruption, the Minnesota Legislature is as clean as a whistle, according to a recently released University study.
By limiting the amount that individuals, political action committees, and ‘big givers’ — those who contribute more than $200 — can give to candidates, the Legislature has decreased the influence those groups have on Minnesota politics, according to the study.
“Money is called ‘the mother’s milk’ of politics, but in Minnesota that mother’s milk is lower fat than it is in any other place in the country,” said Virginia Gray, a political science professor who co-authored the study.
In 1974, the Legislature reduced the importance of private and special interest money in state-level politics by restricting the amount of money those groups can give.
The percentage of private funding of political campaigns has decreased from 80 percent in 1986 to 41 percent in 1994, said Gray, who also serves as the chairwoman of the University’s Faculty Consultative Committee.
This decline in private funding does not necessarily prove that special interests’ influence has decreased, Gray said. “It does prove that there is half the opportunity for special interests to finance campaigns and through that vehicle to have impact on policy.”
State election rules say that, in exchange for public funding, candidates may collect no more than 20 percent of their total expenditure limit from political action committees, lobbyists, and big givers.
Currently, House members cannot spend more than $22,000, and senators cannot spend more than $44,000 for their election campaigns if they agree to accept public funding, said Wyman Spano, a University graduate student and contract lobbyist who co-authored the study with Gray. Candidates who do not agree to expenditure limits cannot receive public financing, but are free to use their own funds.
In addition to agreeing to spend no more than the expenditure limit in exchange for public money, candidates also face contribution restrictions.
Such restrictions include banning House and Senate candidates from accepting more than $500 from any source except political parties, which can give up to $5,000.
Before the limits were in place, Minnesota legislators searched for big donors to contribute to their campaigns. But, since the funding limits were revised, that has changed.
“I get calls from PACs looking for legislators who can accept their money,” Spano said. “They’ve got money, but they need somebody to spend it on.”
In order to qualify for public funding, House candidates must demonstrate that they have already raised at least $1,500 from at least 30 people, Gray said.
State law encourages small, individual campaign contributions by providing state tax refunds for individuals who contribute up to $50 and couples who contribute up to $100 to a candidate or political party.
State taxpayers can decide whether they want public money used in campaigns by using a voluntary check-off system on their tax returns. The money collected from these returns is then given to candidates who sign campaign expenditure limit pledges.
In 1994, the state refunded more than $2.5 million for contributions to political campaigns.