A Minnesota campaign finance oversight board is weighing whether to impose new fees on lobbyists, candidates and political parties to address budget strains that have been exacerbated by added calls for investigations.
The fees discussed Monday are being developed by the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board as a backup plan if lawmakers balk a request for increased funding from the state's general treasury. Board members and staff acknowledged that required annual fees could face free-speech court challenges or discourage political participation.
Campaign board executive director Gary Goldsmith said a multi-year budget pinch has left the watchdog agency in an untenable place. It has fewer staff than ever even as complaints leading to investigations have increased. In 2012, the board launched 31 investigations — nine are still open — compared with the 34 probes it undertook from the previous five years combined.
"I'm not kidding anymore that we cannot do everything we are doing," Goldsmith said in presenting a budget recommendation that will be formally acted upon Wednesday.
The six-member board gravitated toward a recommendation urging Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators to use general tax dollars for a $1 million a year operating budget, which is substantially more than the agency's present $689,000 base budget. Mindful that a projected state deficit will make such requests difficult, the board authorized staff members to devise a fee structure to present to the Legislature as an alternative.
"I don't want to get into a situation where we are punishing people for trying to be engaged in the democracy, but we need to a plan B," said board chairman Greg McCullough.
Preliminary proposals developed by Goldsmith suggested fees that could generate $250,000 to $350,000 a year.
Under one scenario, lobbyists would be charged $50, with a cap of $750 for those representing more than 15 clients. The expectation, Goldsmith said, is some people would stop registering as lobbyists.
Lobbyists are required to pay registration fees in 42 states. In some places, lobbyists are assessed for every client represented while other states have a single charge.
Dane Smith, a lobbyist for a progressive think tank called Growth & Justice, said the fees would put an unfair cost on some entities, particularly nonprofits that speak out for the poor. He said some groups that register multiple lobbyists for free now might scale back if they have to pay for each one.
"It's nothing at all for the big monied interests who lobby here," Smith said. "It's an inherent disadvantage for all those groups for whom the nickel and diming is a large percentage of their resources."
Campaign finance registration fees on candidates and parties are less prevalent, with 11 states having them, according to board research. The early proposals contemplate a sliding-scale approach where the size of a political operation would determine the fee. For instance, those operating on less than $25,000 could be charged $250, while bigger campaigns or parties could see fees of up to $1,000.
Page 2 of 2 - Goldsmith said he would expect the political fees to invite lawsuits, but the board could argue that the government's interest in disclosure justifies the financial burden.
One major obstacle could be Dayton. He told reporters Monday that state government has relied excessively on fees as a substitute for tax dollars. Speaking about fees generally, the Democratic governor said he "will be very reluctant" to embrace new ones as part of a new two-year budget the Legislature will debate in 2013.
"There would have to be a very strong case," Dayton said at the event sponsored by Forum Communications, adding, "I see that as part of the honesty we need to reinstate into our budget — agree or disagree about whether we're going to raise taxes or cut taxes, or raise spending or cut spending — let's do it straight up and not back door."
Dayton and the board seem to be on a similar page when it comes to changes to political donation laws. Dayton said he wants to see the maximum checks candidates can now accept — they vary by office — to increase. He said the current limits are so low that outside groups able to accept unlimited sums are overpowering candidates.
On Wednesday, the campaign board will consider recommendations that could boost the top election-year donation to gubernatorial candidates from $2,000 to $3,000. Spending limits for candidates who take public campaign subsidies would also rise under a proposal due for board action. Any change to the limits would take legislative approval.