News: Election Sale

Reforming the Republicans' campaign-finance reform in Ohio

Mar 23, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Graham Lienhart

Jill Burchell circulates petitions for a ballot referendum intended to repeal a campaign finance "reform" law passed last year by the Ohio General Assembly.

Grassroots political groups hope voters will throw out a new state law that raises by a phenomenal amount the money individuals can spend on political campaigns, while restricting union spending.

The new law eliminates an annual $2,500 cap on individual contributions to candidates and replaces it with an effective limit of $1.76 million per donor.

What started out last year as a campaign-finance reform bill in the Ohio Senate, requiring judicial candidates to disclose their campaign contributions, was morphed by the Ohio House into a law that's anti-reform, according to a coalition of 17 groups circulating petitions for a repeal referendum. The coalition includes Democracy for Ohio, Common Cause and the AFL-CIO.

The Ohio General Assembly passed the bill in a special session called by Gov. Bob Taft at the end of 2004. Although there was virtually no time for debate or input from citizens, legislators still received more than 103,000 phone calls, e-mails and letters opposing it, according to the AFL-CIO.

'The smell test'
The 171-page bill includes a number of provisions that severely weaken reform laws already in place.

"We pleaded with legislators to not pass this bill with all this junk," says Bill Woods of Cincinnati, spokesman for Common Cause. "We asked them to come back next year (in 2005) and do it right. But they were hellbent on passing this."

Many legislators accepted the "campaign finance reform" title without looking beneath the surface because they didn't have enough time to read the entire document, he says.

The bill's drafters used tactics that misled the public about the true nature of the legislation, he says.

"That didn't pass the smell test," Woods says. "The average citizen had no idea what this bill was really about."

In addition to the original judicial disclosure requirement, the new law increases from $2,500 total to $20,000 per county — $10,000 in a primary and $10,000 in a general election — the amount individuals can give candidates for state office. The law also allows individuals to give $10,000 per county to a political party and $10,000 per county in support of or opposition to a state issue.

Because Ohio has 88 counties, an individual could thus make up to $3.52 million per year in political contributions for state elections.

The law also:

· Allows unlimited donations by political action committees for "electioneering communications" ads that don't use language such as "Elect" or "Vote for";

· Limits unions to $20,000 statewide — $10,000 in a primary and $10,000 in a general election — for any state race, party or issue and requires it be spent only in counties where the union has a physical office; and

· Eliminates political contributing entities (PCEs) as a means for public-employee unions to set up a political action committee.

Steve Huffman, political coordinator for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), is particularly concerned about the removal of PCEs.

"Public employees are already restricted in their ability to participate in the political process," he says. "Their unions represent one of the few ways they can make a contribution to candidates and issues. Removal of PCEs eliminates the opportunity for the unions representing them to contribute to the political process (in the areas in) which their employees work. How fair is that?"

The Hamilton County Republican Party recently hired Kathryn Cascella to assist with ensuring compliance with the new campaign finance law. She says she's still learning the details of the law, which goes into effect March 31. Raising the donation cap for individuals to $10,000 gives everyone an equal opportunity to contribute, she says.

"We feel that Republicans have always been in favor of finance reform," Cascella says. "But when we speak of finance reform, we are looking at across-the-board measures that don't give allowances to special interest groups or unions."

'Big money rules'
Every person, business and individual is a "special interest group," because all want something from government, Cascella says.

But what appears to be equal opportunity actually handicaps some groups, critics say. The law places restrictions on some donors that don't apply to others.

Ohio law formerly limited individuals to $2,500 in an election. Individuals can now contribute up to $10,000 per county to a primary campaign, a general election, a state issue and a state party.

"Someone like Carl Lindner who wants to give to all of his choices running for statewide office anywhere in the state can do so," Huffman says. "But a union is limited to $10,000 for the entire state."

A union representing employees in several cities and counties must divide its $10,000 among all the candidates, issues and parties. For example, 10 candidates, issues and political parties would only get $1,000 each for an entire election. An individual can contribute up to $40,000 per county. By contrast, federal law limits individuals to $2,000 for a candidate for national office.

"This bill once again puts big money in the saddle," Woods says. "It destroys public confidence in the democratic process and says, 'Big money rules again.' "

Woods says the ability of an average citizen to impact an election all but disappears under such circumstances.

Lynn Worpenberg, co-chair of Democracy for Cincinnati and a coordinator of the petition drive, says the last presidential election inspired her to get involved.

"The 'If you're not with me, you're against me; if you say anything against the president, you're a traitor' messages really bothered me," she says. "This is a bill that appears to be unjust, and we all need to voice our opinion about it. This is our country, this is our state, this is our city and we need to pay attention to the things that are going into law."

Organizers need 140,000 signatures to put a repeal measure on the November ballot. Copies are available for signing at the Hamilton County Democratic Party, 615 Main St., or by calling 513-421-0495. The deadline is Friday.

Campaign-finance reform is supposed to allow everyone to participate in the political process without placing one group or individual's interests above another's simply because of the amount of money contributed. The new law doesn't meet that test, according to Hamilton County Democratic Chair Tim Burke.

"The political process ought to be one that involves a level playing field and shouldn't be dictated by the folks with the most money and most elevated offices in order to perpetuate themselves," he says.

The ballot initiative isn't the only effort to repeal the law. Unions plan to challenge it in court, Huffman says. ©