Supreme Court ruling could cripple Nebraska's campaign finance law

2011-06-27T15:45:00Z 2011-08-17T18:30:18Z Supreme Court ruling could cripple Nebraska's campaign finance lawBy KEVIN O'HANLON / Lincoln Journal Star

A ruling Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court in an Arizona case could cripple a Nebraska law meant to level the financial playing field in political campaigns.

The high court, in a 5-4 ruling, struck down part of an Arizona law that gives money to publicly funded candidates facing privately funded opponents and independent groups.

The Arizona law was passed in the wake of a public corruption scandal and was intended to reward candidates who forgo raising campaign cash, even in the face of opponents' heavy spending fueled by private money.

The court said the law violates the First Amendment.

"Laws like Arizona's matching funds provision that inhibit robust and wide-open political debate without sufficient justification cannot stand," Chief Justice John Roberts said in the court's majority opinion.

Nebraska's Campaign Finance Limitation Act of 1992 was created to help encourage voluntary compliance with campaign finance limits.

Under the law, candidates for state offices have varying spending limits for primary and general elections.

Candidates who agree to abide by the voluntary spending limits can qualify for public funds if their opponents exceed the cap.

Under the CFLA, once a so-called nonabiding candidate spends 40 percent of his or her estimate, the abiding opponent can request matching state funds.

The CFLA was tweaked during the last legislative session to allow political candidates to accept contributions of up to 75 percent of the spending cap for their races from non-individuals. The limit had been 50 percent.

The limits vary by office.

Money in the CFLA Fund comes from fines levied against candidates or campaigns for violating campaign finance laws.

Jack Gould of the Nebraska chapter of the political watchdog group Common Cause said the triggering mechanism in the CFLA could be in trouble.

"Because Nebraska's public financing system is unique, the lawyers will have the final word," Gould said.

The Arizona ruling follows recent rulings by the high court striking down campaign finance laws.

Among those were last year's Citizens United decision, which removed most limits on election spending by corporations and organized labor, and a 2008 decision that voided the federal "millionaire's amendment" to increase contribution limits for congressional candidates facing wealthy opponents.

"The real tragedy lies in the fact that the CFLA has kept campaign spending down with only a very small amount of public money coming into play," Gould said.

The combination of Monday's ruling and the Citizens United decision "gives corporations the opportunity to dominate Nebraska's elections," Gould said.

"If the CFLA is eliminated and new legislation is not adopted, corporate interest in Nebraska will be in position to completely fund any candidate," Gould said. "The combination of wealthy donors and corporate contributions reduces dramatically the role of the $20 donor."

From a national perspective, the "Arizona decision moves our nation closer to a plutocracy and away from a democracy," he said.

Roberts, who was joined in the majority by Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, said nothing in the court's decision should be read as an attack on public financing generally.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at 402-473-2682 or The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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