Special interests use issue advocacy loophole to influence legislative racesby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — The candidates for the Minnesota Legislature and special-interest groups that support them are using various tactics to try to win in November.
Every seat in the legislature is on the ballot this year. Some of the outside groups appear to be spending a lot of money on some races, but state and federal law does not require them to disclose exactly how much they are spending.
For example, voters in some of the most competitive legislative races may have gotten a campaign mailer thanking a Republican lawmaker for balancing the state budget. The literature was created by a group called the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses. The group does not have to disclose where it raised its money or what it's spent on.
"Everybody, regardless of which side you're on, is using every tool in the tool chest to influence voters," said Charlie Weaver, who directs the Minnesota Business Partnership and oversees the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses. The coalition is made up of eleven business trade groups, including the business partnership, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, bankers, and retailers.
Groups are usually required to disclose political spending, but disclosure is not required if spending does not call for the election or defeat of a candidate. Weaver said the mailings are not political, but part of a broader education effort. Even though the mailings are arriving just before the election, Weaver denies that they are aimed at helping specific candidates. It is part of a multi-year education campaign on the budget, he said.
"It's not political. It's issue advocacy," Weaver said. "It's around issues we care about. We're not advocating for the election or defeat of any candidate."
Weaver said a separate committee has been set up for what he defines as electioneering.
The mailings frustrate some Democrats who say they don't know where the literature is being sent. The message that Republicans balanced the budget is misleading because the state is facing a significant projected deficit in the next budget cycle, said DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen.
"I don't think that the ads that they are sending out are actually portraying the positions that Republicans have taken," Thissen said. "And when people don't know who's speaking, it's a lot easier not to tell the truth than when you have to step up and say I'm making this statement."
Another group that sides with Democrats, the teacher's union Education Minnesota, is running ads on television that encourage the public to support spending more money for schools.
"We see our kids packed into some of the largest class sizes in the nation, making it harder or one on one time with the teacher. We can't let that happen on our watch. Support legislators who truly support education. See where candidates stand..." one ad says.
Because the ad does not call for the election or defeat of a candidate, the union does not have to disclose how much it is spending. Tom Dooher, Education Minnesota president, said union dues are paying for the ads. The union will report the spending as a lobbying expense, he said. But that report does not have to be filed until several months after Election Day. Dooher said the ad campaign is a new initiative for the union.
"We're getting more involved in issue advocacy and we want to make sure that the public knows that what they want is what we want," Dooher said. "We want to make sure that students have the resources they need and therefore the educators are going to have the resources that they need."
Campaign finance watchdogs say issue advocacy spending is becoming more common after a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing businesses and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.
Special interests are giving to non-profit groups known by their IRS filings as a (c)4 or a (c6) because they can remain anonymous, said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center.
"The lesson learned here," McGehee said, "is go ahead and give to a (c)4 or a (c)6, remain anonymous and then you don't have to face any problem of public backlash."
McGehee expects the practice to become more widespread in future elections unless state and federal lawmakers require more disclosure.
- Morning Edition, 10/23/2012, 7:20 a.m.