Kansas lawmakers seek to boost campaign contribution limits
Topeka After an election cycle in which the amount of money spent by outside groups dwarfed the amount spent by the candidates' campaigns, themselves, Kansas lawmakers from both parties are pressing to increase campaign contribution limits in an effort to keep up.
The House Elections Committee unanimously endorsed a bill Wednesday that would at least double contribution limits to campaigns for state offices. The bill would also double the amount one could give to political parties, from $25,000 to $50,000 at the national party level and from $15,000 to $30,000 at the state level. Meanwhile, campaign limits for county-wide offices in counties of at least 75,000 residents would rise from $500 to $2,500.
State Rep. Tom Sawyer, who served as state Democratic Party chairman from 1999 to 2003 and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998, said the move to raise campaign contribution limits was spurred by the sudden influx of outside money in the last elections.
"The rise of third-party expenditures is a new thing and it's scaring all of us. All of a sudden one special interest group can elect or defeat candidates and that's just too much power for a special interest group to have," said Sawyer, of Wichita.
Outside groups spent at least $9.5 million on television ads in Kansas' 2014 gubernatorial and congressional races, compared to the $4.4 million spent by the campaigns, according to the Center for Public Integrity , a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news service.
Bob Beatty, a professor of political science at Washburn University in Topeka, said that the rise in ad spending was particularly disproportionate in Kansas because it is a "relatively cheap" market for advertising, and national organizations with political agendas realized they could get good value.
"If you're going to drop $1 million into a campaign, that million dollars is going to go a lot further in Kansas than it will in a Texas Senate race," Beatty said.
Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, told the committee that he was "troubled" by how uncoordinated outside ads, even in support of his candidates, clouded the message. At times, candidates even apologized for negative ads run against their opponents by outside groups that they believed were over the line, he said.
The boom in outside money followed the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 "Citizens United," which allowed for unlimited campaign spending by political action committees and further allowed organizations with the 501c4 legal designation to conceal their funding sources.
"There's a lot of dark money from these PACs and 501c4's, but this (bill) is a way of redressing the balance so that the money goes to the person or the organization that the public wants to hear from — the candidate, not these groups that are the background noise," Barker said.
Republican Rep. Mark Kahrs of Wichita, who chairs the House panel that approved the bill, said he was surprised that Democrats on the committee supported it. But he said their support made sense because existing campaign limits have been "eviscerated through inflation and the rise of independent money has mushroomed in the last few election cycles."
Democratic Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, who is a member of the House committee, said he was skeptical that the bill would be effective, saying that the allure for outside groups to influence political campaigns without disclosing their involvement is too great to overcome by simply increasing the campaign contribution limits.
Charles Koch, CEO of the Wichita-based conglomerate Koch Industries, and his brother David have been strong backers of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and have supported conservative politicians across the country through a network of think tanks and political fundraising organizations. Their network raised $407 million during the 2012 campaign cycle and it aims to spend $889 million on campaigns through 2016.
"The unfortunate side is the amount of misinformation that these outside interests bring forward into the political process, and if candidates think they're going to overcome that by increasing their contribution limits, they're sadly mistaken," Burroughs said.