Common Cause Lacks Common Sense: Threatens Legal Action to Save Taxpayer Financed Campaigns in Budget Strapped Minnesota

Like many states across the country, Minnesota is facing difficult choices as precipitously falling tax revenues are creating huge budget deficits. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has made a number of emergency cuts — referred to as “unallotments”– in order to balance his state’s budget.

Here at CCP, we’re big fans of axing one of the programs on Gov. Pawlenty’s list of “unallotments.” The Political Contribution Refund program is set to end on June 30, which will save Minnesota taxpayers $10 million every two years. Under the program:

“candidates who agree to abide by state campaign spending limits are allowed to seek contributions of up to $50 from individuals and $100 from married couples with the enticing promise that the state will reimburse the full amount.”

The government-kickback-for-politician-support program “started out as a tax credit, was repealed in 1987 but reborn as a refund in 1991. It is the only such dollar-for-dollar refund program in the country.”

Even though the Political Contribution Refund program is a key part of Minnesota’s larger taxpayer financed campaign regime, the elimination of tax refunds for political contributions did not cause much of a stir among politicians of either party — which goes to show just what a budget mess the state is in since politicians almost never fail to look out for Number One.

State House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, a Democrat (or, as my Minnesotan friends call it, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party), said the DFL will not fight to reinstate using taxpayer dollars to pay for campaign contributions because, “As Democrats, we’re much more concerned about funding for our hospitals and for education.”

Such progress! Is it too much to hope that Minnesota’s politicians can go “all in” and eliminate taxpayer financing of campaigns to make more headway in balancing the state’s budget? That would be a win-win for Minnesota — being fiscally responsible while also putting campaigns back in the hands of candidates and their supporters where they belong, and not the state.

Unfortunately, although many Republicans and Democrats either support or don’t care about the elimination of the Political Contribution Refund program, so-called campaign finance “reformers” are still looking for a way to save it. In a shining example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, pro-taxpayer financing (and apparently anti-budget balancing) organization Common Cause Minnesota is gearing up to take Gov. Pawlenty to court, challenging his ability to make emergency budget cuts, especially the elimination of using unavailable state money to provide tax refunds for campaign contributions.

“Mike Dean, president of Common Cause Minnesota, said Monday that the group has been talking with lawyers and law professors over whether Pawlenty can make his unallotments — as the emergency cuts are called — stick.”

“‘We’re very concerned about the abuse of power here,’ Dean said. ‘We have consulted legal experts to make sure we’re correct, but we think there are grounds. We would engage someone who would be injured — a legislative candidate — to file the actual lawsuit.'”

So in order to ensure the continuance of taxpayer financed campaigns, Common Cause Minnesota would have the courts eliminate the Governor’s power to make emergency budget cuts altogether. Given the continuing feeble state of the economy and the fact that Minnesota (and other states) are teetering on the edge of budget disaster, Common Cause isn’t exercising a whole lot of common sense by even threatening such action.

If this ends up in court, we sure hope Gov. Pawlenty and the people of Minnesota prevail. And, if they do, they should remember that, if you’re looking for more ways to balance the state’s budget, you could always eliminate taxpayer financed campaigns entirely. After all, America has had privately-financed campaigns for more than two centuries now, and things haven’t turned out that badly for our country.