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Reformers Poised for Campaign Finance Assault
By Laura McCallum
January 9, 2001
Part of Minnesota Public Radio's online coverage of Session 2001
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Supporters of campaign finance reform say the 2001 session may be the best chance in years to pass significant changes. Gov. Jesse Ventura and leaders in both parties say they want to reduce the amount of money flowing into politics.

Campaign finance reform is one of those issues that lawmakers love to talk about, yet rarely act upon. This year, the odds are somewhat better. Gov. Ventura is using his bully pulpit to promote the issue, and leaders in both chambers say they support the idea.

In the House, Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, is a big proponent, and has told Rep. Bill Haas, R-Champlin, to draft a bill. It will start out in the House Government Operations Committee, where chairman Rep. Jim Rhodes, R-St. Louis Park, is likely to give it a hearing, although he didn't hear a clean money bill authored by Rep. Betty McCollum, DFL-North St. Paul, last year. If it passes Gov Ops, it moves to State Government Finance, chaired by fiscal watchdog Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Shoreview, who may object if it carries a price tag. If it makes it out of Krinkie's committee, it would likely have to pass through Ways and Means before heading to the House floor.

In the Senate, several competing proposals will begin in the Rules Committee, chaired by Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine. That committee has sometimes been considered a graveyard for reform proposals, but the new Assistant Majority Leader, John Hottinger, DFL-Mankato, says he'll chair the subcommittee that will hear several bills, including his own proposal. If any plan makes it out of Rules, it will have to clear the Finance Committee before heading to the Senate floor. If anything lands on the Governor's desk, he seems likely to sign it, given his longstanding concern about campaign finance reform.
VENTURA HAS BEEN TALKING about campaign finance reform since he ran for governor and won by only spending about $300,000. That $300,000 didn't come easy; Ventura was turned down by 22 banks before getting a loan, a rejection that still frustrates him. Ventura brought it up during his State of the State, and recommended that candidates who qualify for public financing get the money after the primary, instead of after the general election. Ventura also called on lawmakers to rein in soft money, by asking political parties and caucuses that receive public money to limit their independent expenditures.

"The current barrage of negative and misleading ads and mailings in the final week or two of the election is unfair to the candidates and to the people they seek to represent," Ventura said.

Many lawmakers couldn't agree more, particularly after the 2000 election. Both caucuses accused each other of running last-minute attacks on their candidates, and House Republican Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon is still steaming over the nearly $200,000 the House DFL caucus spent to defeat Republican incumbent Bob Westfall of Rothsay. Sviggum would like to prohibit negative attacks in the final week before the election.

"Rather than these hit pieces going out the day before, or on election day, I think that's pretty unfair," says Sviggum. "We would like to - at least from a perspective of the House Republican caucus - say, the independent expenditures - great, fine. The First Amendment allows that to take place, but not during the last seven days, giving a candidate a chance to respond."

But Sviggum's proposal raises constitutional questions, and could be challenged on free-speech grounds, so several observers doubt it will go anywhere. Sviggum has asked Rep. Bill Haas (R-Champlin) to draft a campaign finance reform bill, and Haas says he's been meeting with the governor's staff to find common ground.

Haas says House Republicans should have a plan ready next month. In the Senate, there are likely to be several competing reform proposals.

Sen. John Marty (D-Roseville) will push for getting rid of all special interest money. But he says it will be tougher to pass campaign finance reform in the Senate this year, since the Election Laws Committee he used to chair has been abolished and folded into the Rules Committee.

Marty says the Rules Committee is stacked with members who are largely hostile to campaign finance reform.

"I would argue we didn't pass any significant reforms in the past four years. It makes it more difficult now," says Marty.

Sen. John Hottinger (D-Mankato) disagrees that the chances for meaningful reform are diminished. The new Senate Assistant Majority Leader says reform bills now have one fewer hurdle to clear. Hottinger authored a so-called "clean money" bill that got a hearing last session but never made it to the floor. It would provide full public funding for candidates who agree to spending limits, similar to laws in Maine and Arizona.

Hottinger says the Legislature has a window of opportunity to clean up campaigns and restore public confidence in the system.

"If we don't do that, it just lends credence to the public's view that we are controlled by the people who give us money as opposed to the people who give us votes," says Hottinger.

Hottinger's bill is opposed by groups such as Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, which argues reform bills restrict their ability to get their message out. And any legislation that makes it through the process could also be challenged in court. In 1999, the Minnesota Supreme Court struck down spending limits on independent expenditures for political parties. But given the interest in campaign finance reform by Ventura and key lawmakers in both houses, it has a better chance than in previous years of making it through both chambers and getting the governor's signature.

Laura McCallum is the Capitol Bureau Chief for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach her via e-mail at