Stateline Story

Curbing Power of Money Vexes States

The U.S. Senate's political drama over campaign finance reform has been performed many times across the country, and state lawmakers have had only mixed success themselves trying to control the influence of big money in elections.

Although state laws setting donor and spending limits or allowing public financing of some campaigns have passed many states, most of the statutes enacted since the Watergate scandal of the 1970s pay lip service to the idea of real reform, analysts say.

As written, most state laws aren't even as tough as federal laws, and are so riddled with loopholes as to make them almost unenforceable.

Like their colleagues in Congress, state lawmakers have been unwilling for the most part to outlaw donations from corporations, unions, special interests and individuals to the political parties, so-called "soft money." Nor have they been inclined to tighten restrictions on the gathering and spending of campaign dollars.

In fact six states -- Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, New Mexico, Utah and Virginia --place no limits at all on contributions or expenditures. Reform advocates say this gives new meaning to Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell's famous line that "money equals free speech" in America.

There are, however, two states that are shining examples of Democratic and Republican lawmakers putting partisan differences aside to adopt laws that actually ban soft money contributions.

Connecticut was the first state to place an outright ban on soft money in statewide races. Some in the General Assembly, which passed the measure unanimously in 1998, wanted to extend the ban to congressional elections as well. But unfortunately, says Joan Andrews, an attorney for the Connecticut Elections Enforcement Commission, legislatures do not have jurisdiction over federal campaign and election matters.

"We couldn't do that, but we felt we could take care of our own problems," Andrews says.

Connecticut lawmakers in general have been as frustrated as the rest of the country at Congress' inability up to this point to pass campaign finance reform legislation, she says.

"The people (of Connecticut) wanted us to do something, and I think many members felt that this was a problem Washington wasn't going to fix. So they thought they could at least keep it out of our state elections."

Alaska has also taken steps to control the influence of soft money in state elections. The Alaska law, also passed in 1998, prohibits the state parties and candidates from taking corporate and labor money. And it places limits on how much the parties can accept from individuals. The law goes even further than the Connecticut statute. It also prohibits the state parties from being used as funnels to distribute campaign money from the national party coffers.

While most states have been just as slow as Congress to tackle the soft money issue or strictly limit other contributions, some have moved timidly and others aggressively in recent years to overhaul their campaign finance systems. Quite often, though, it was the voters who ended up making new laws through ballot initiatives.

Twenty-three states have adopted some form of public financing of races. Many of those measures were forced on reluctant lawmakers by voter initiatives.

Most of the public finance laws involve little more than a tax check-off of $1-to-$3 that goes to the party of the taxpayer's choice. They are not designed to build support for replacing traditional campaign fund-raising systems.

About a dozen go a bit further by providing partial financing of some races by giving money directly to individual candidates who accept spending limits.

While most incumbent lawmakers have not embraced public financing, the idea does seem to be catching on with more and more challengers, particularly in the Northeast and Southwest where a handful of states have adopted more progressive reforms over the past five years.

In Maine, for example, nearly a third of the 392 candidates running for the legislature last year chose to go the public finance route. Those who didn't - usually the incumbent - ran the old fashioned way; raising as much as they could from wherever they could. As it turned out, some of the so-called "traditionalists" ended up losing to "clean" challengers backed by a smaller war chest of public funding and a tiny amount of private money raised in order to qualify for the taxpayer dollars.

Maine was the first state to adopt a comprehensive public financing law that provides money for candidates in all statewide races. Reform advocates say the state's Clean Election Act, which was approved by voters in 1996, has helped rein in a political system awash in massive amounts of special interest money.

"Maine deserves a lot of credit. They have adopted (public financing) as their main (campaign finance) system. They've been through one election and it seems to be working for them," says Ed Davis, who monitors state campaign and election issues for the Washington, D.C.-based public interest group Common Cause.

Maine's success, Davis says, has generated interest among other states in using the Clean Elections Act as a model for their own legislation.

At least three other states - Arizona, Vermont and Massachusetts - have followed in Maine's footsteps, although the Massachusetts Legislature has yet to implement an initiative voters approved by a 2-1 ratio in 1998. The Commonwealth's lawmakers are still haggling over funding and some who fear increased competition for their offices because of the law have been searching for ways to either gut it or kill it outright.

"Lawmakers in general are never anxious to reform campaign finance systems," observes Davis, referring to the foot-dragging in Massachusetts.

The Arizona and Vermont laws also were passed by a vote of the people in 1998. Both laws were used in statewide elections last year for the first time.