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Watchdogs Hope to Counter Political Money Machines
by Amy Radil
May 24, 2000
Part of MPR's Campaign 2000 coverage
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Political contributions from lobbyists and political-action committees rose in Minnesota last year, and some political observers expect the trend to continue this campaign season. Fueling the flow of money, in part, is a Minnesota Supreme Court decision allowing parties to spend unlimited money to help their candidates. Since laws to curb spending have failed at the Legislature, reformers and political leaders are trying another tactic: they'll be offering more scrutiny of campaign advertising by political experts and, hopefully, citizens.

Campaign 2000 provides an Ad Watch feature that critiques political advertising during the campaign year. See several recent stories here.
THE MINNESOTA SENATE caucuses, both DFL and Republican, were the top beneficiaries of lobbyist and political-action committee contributions in the last two years, bringing in about $4 million total, according to Hamline University professor David Schultz. Schultz, the former president of Common Cause Minnesota and an advocate of campaign-finance reform, says voters will never know the impact those contributions had on this year's legislative session.

"How do we know, for example, that Attorney General Hatch's consumer privacy legislation was derailed because they were bad ideas or because pressure groups were spending money to influence legislators, how do we know if unicameralism was derailed because it was a bad idea, or because of money?" says Schultz.

Schultz says in the absence of more stringent contribution limits for lobbyists, he'd like to see laws requiring more timely reporting of contributions, and greater detail as to the issues being lobbied. Schultz has an ally in Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who has tried and failed to pass more stringent campaign-finance legislation. In the absence of tighter laws, Sviggum recently asked Schultz to create an adwatch group that can at least monitor and discuss the content of campaign ads this fall.

"It's going to be very important to have some group kind of stand as the watchdog, some group to kind of stand as the nonpartisan or tripartisan jury from which ads and people who do ads that are misleading or distorting will at least be responsible to," says Sviggum.

Sviggum will also stand with a group of legislators next month at the launch of the Minnesota Alliance for Better Campaigns, which will keep tabs on television campaign coverage and press TV stations for direct candidate access to the airwaves, whether through debates or airtime for individual candidates.

"Clearly anybody who's been in public affairs for some time has been increasingly concerned about the quality especially of TV news coverage," says public affairs consultant Dean Alger, who will head the Minnesota Chapter of the Alliance.

"Clearly anybody who's been in public affairs for some time has been increasingly concerned about the quality especially of TV news coverage."

- Dean Alger
Minnesotans will likely see more candidate-specific ads this year, due to the 1999 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling overturning restrictions on candidate ads paid for by political parties. The ruling came out of a lawsuit filed by the state Republican Party, and will likely result in the parties spending more on certain targeted races, rather than on general get-out-and-vote efforts.

A hint of things to come can already be heard around the state, as in this ad created by the state Republican Party.
Ad: Despite his $440 million fee to represent the state of Minnesota, Mike Ciresi says it was public service. He even says it makes him qualified to be a senator...
Dean Alger says he also hopes to bring together a group of citizens to offer their own critiques of the ads they see and hear.

Campaign finance reform may not be a dead issue in the state. Governor Ventura and his Independence Party accepted no PAC or lobbyist money in 1999. Ventura's spokesman John Wodele says Schultz's latest report only underscores the need for reform, and says the Governor will release his own recommendations this summer or fall.

Amy Radil covers politics for Minnesota Public Radio. You can contact her by e-mail at