Lawmakers began debate Tuesday on a bill to repeal the Nebraska law meant to level the financial playing field in political campaigns.

Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh introduced a bill http://nebraskalegislature.gov/bills/view_bill.php?DocumentID=12435" target="_blank">(LB142) to repeal the law, which is similar to a measure that failed to get passed last session.

The 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 law, once a so-called non-abiding candidate spends 40 percent of their estimate, their abiding opponent can request matching state funds.

The limits vary by office.

For State Board of Education races and the Public Service Commission, the limit is $72,000; for legislative races, the cap is $92,000; for the University of Nebraska Board of Regents races, it is $103,000; and for state Treasurer, Secretary of State, Auditor and Attorney General, it is $215,000.

"How is it possible that this is the proper policy for us?," Lautenbaugh said. "How could we know that? How could we say that -- not only between different offices -- regents versus legislators -- but between a race in the Panhandle and a race in downtown Omaha? How do we set the same limit for both when they are so different?"

Lautenbaugh wants to scrap the system in favor of having more strict reporting requirements to show where candidates are getting their money, such as requiring campaigns to report the source of all contributions of more than $50. The current reporting requirement doesn't kick in until $250.

Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln assailed the bill, saying it would serve special-interest groups who want to influence elections.

"What compelling interest does this bill serve?" Avery asked. "I submit to you that no public purpose is served. For more than three and a half decades the" U.S. "Supreme Court has recognized the fundamental importance of limiting money in political campaigns." 

Before Lautenbaugh took aim at the law, former Speaker Kermit Brashear of Omaha seldom passed up the opportunity to assail it.

Brashear once said the law was created under the mistaken premise that money automatically taints candidates.

He said the law was "wrong philosophically ... misguided conceptually and ... flawed technically.''

Money in the Nebraska Campaign Finance Limitation Act Fund comes from fines levied against candidates or campaigns for violating campaign finance laws.

The law did not get much attention until the 2000 Board of Regents race, which saw Randy Ferlic defeat incumbent Rosemary Skrupa.

Ferlic, a retired Omaha surgeon, spent $289,000 in his campaign for an unpaid seat. Skrupa became the first Nebraska candidate ever to receive public campaign funds under the law.

Brashear's law firm represented Ferlic in his legal challenge of the law, which Ferlic claimed was unconstitutional and violated his right to freedom of speech.

He later dropped his challenge.

Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at 402-473-2682 or kohanlon@journalstar.com