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Local View: It's a money game now
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Local View: It's a money game now

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In the mid-1980s, Common Cause Nebraska led a coalition of like-minded organizations and individuals concerned that campaigns expenditures for our state legislature were beginning to exceed $100,000. It was argued that getting elected was becoming a “rich man’s game.”

The effort resulted in the creation of the Campaign Finance Limitation Act. The act went into effect in 1996, creating voluntary spending limits for all campaigns for state offices. It also provided public funding for abiding candidates who were being outspent by non-abiding candidates.

From 1996 to 2012, the vast majority of candidates abided by the spending limits and public dollars were only triggered 11 times. The spending limit was adjusted several times but it never exceeded $93,000.

In 2012, after the Citizens United decision and an Arizona case that challenged the public funding mechanism, the Nebraska Supreme Court was forced to declare the CFLA unconstitutional. Nebraska was left with no restrictions on campaign spending or campaign contributions. The floodgates were opened.

According to the latest records compiled by the Accountability and Disclosure Commission, during the 2018 election cycle the 19 legislative races resulted in 23 candidates spending over $100,000 on their campaigns. Of that group 6 spent over $300,000. The most expensive race, Merv Riepe vs. Steve Lathrop, resulted in Riepe spending $350,958 and losing to Lathrop who spent $465,497.

It is interesting that three of four incumbents were unopposed, yet they felt the need to protect themselves by spending more than $50,000. (Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks $114,184, Sen. Curt Friesen $69,318, and Sen. Matt Williams $57,155; Sen. Matt Hansen spent $118,025 in a race with Bob Van Valkenburg).

In the 15 competitive races, 11 were won by the candidate who spent the most. This trend tends to limit the candidate pool to those who have money or have the ability to raise money. The one possible exception to the trend was Tom Brandt who spent $144,334 to defeat incumbent Sen. Laura Ebke, who spent a shocking $457,268.

Although the courts have made it impossible to establish campaign spending limits, it is within the ability of our Legislature to create contribution limits. It is a fair estimate that more than 80% of the contributions to legislative candidate come from large donors contributing more than $250.

Altria Client Services (Philip Morris) spent $449,105 on lobbying our state government since 2018 and contributed $71,000 to campaigns.

It is estimated that small donor contributions, less than $250, account for as little as 6% of some candidates' campaign funds.

This raises the question of how important is the average person who contributes $20 to a candidate’s campaign. Will the average person have the same access and influence as Altria Client Services?

Common Cause has approached legislators hoping that one would bring legislation to limit campaign contributions, but the effort has been futile. Both Democrats and Republicans fear the loss of their major contributors. They also fear the attacks by “dark money” groups late in their campaigns when money is running out.

So, in Nebraska, it appears that politics has become a rich man’s game. If you don’t have the money, you may have to sell your soul to those who do.

Jack Gould is issues chair for Common Cause Nebraska.

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