Kentucky, a state that hasn’t increased its campaign contribution limits since 1998, saw Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, sign a measure in March that increased almost all campaign contribution thresholds.
Kentuckians may now give $2,000 to candidates per election (double the $1,000 previously allowed) and $5,000 to political party committees (up from $2,500), among other increases.
The law also establishes an account for party committees to buy or maintain their office buildings — money that cannot be used to influence elections. These funds can accept an unlimited amount from any source, including corporations.
Despite the increases, Kentucky’s limits remain relatively low compared to other U.S. states, said state Sen. Damon Thayer, the Republican floor leader and the sponsor of the bill.
“But at least it’s a step in the right direction to allow campaigns and political parties to raise more money to keep up with the rising costs to run an election and the increased role of super PACs,” he said.
Thayer said he supports Citizens United.
But the decision “diminished the role of campaigns to amplify our message,” he said. “The downside of super PACs is that we can’t coordinate our message with them.”
National interest in statehouse drama
Amid the various statehouse battles over political money, New Mexico is unique in its theatrics.
In April, Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, vetoed legislation that doubled contribution limits but tightened donor-disclosure rules.
Just two months later, newly elected Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver proposed a campaign-finance rule that included elements of the failed bill, though not the increased contribution limits. This angered opponents of increased disclosure requirements.
Burly Cain, state director for Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, called the process “an unconstitutional power grab” during a public meeting.
“The proposed rule attempts to legislate rather than implement existing law,” Tyler Martinez, an attorney with the conservative Center for Competitive Politics and no relation to New Mexico’s governor, wrote in public testimony to the secretary of state.
Toulouse Oliver disagrees. She said in an interview that she’s not overstepping her authority because she is not creating new law — only clarifying it — in the wake of court decisions, such as Citizens United.
“We’re just trying to take this cloudy, confusing, and in some cases unconstitutional state statute and apply clarity for groups to follow,” Toulouse Oliver said.
Another Koch-connected group, Concerned Veterans for America, launched an ad campaign, sending out mailers and circulating a letter calling the measure “an attempt to circumvent the legislative process and silence citizens through executive rulemaking.”
Former New Mexico governor and 2016 Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson signed onto the letter.
“Gov. Johnson is generally and pretty aggressively an advocate of transparency, but this goes too far,” Johnson spokesman Joe Hunter said. “This is something Gov. Martinez had vetoed, and might have a chilling effect on the nonprofits across the spectrum.”
The effort shocked rulemaking proponents, who note that the two conservative groups don’t voluntarily disclose their donors.
“I’ve never seen mailers for a rulemaking!” Viki Harrison of Common Cause New Mexico said.
Michael Daly, a Gallup, New Mexico, resident, was more blunt. After receiving one of the mailers, he presented it at a public hearing, where he called the lack of disclosure “the penicillin-resistant syphilis destroying the American democracy.”
This debate stemmed from a bill state Sen. Peter Wirth, now the Democratic floor leader, has introduced in one form or another every session since 2011. This session, he was finally gaining momentum: The legislation was fast-tracked through the House, and sent to Martinez to sign or veto in February.
“I’ve been trying to do the one thing we can do after Citizens United, which is require disclosure,” Wirth said. “Over the years, the bill unanimously passed the Senate three times, but we just couldn't ever get through to the House floor for debate.”
The bill would have doubled — to $5,000 — the maximum contribution to state lawmakers. This served as a compromise between lawmakers who wanted no limits and those who wanted to tighten them. It also included new donor disclosure rules for groups spending money to influence elections.
But Martinez vetoed the legislation.
“The requirements in this bill would likely discourage charities and other groups that are primarily non-political from advocating for their cause and could also discourage individuals from giving to charities,” Martinez wrote in her April veto.