The limits for campaign spending in Wyoming may soon allow individuals to donate more and political action committees to donate less to politicians in the state, under the terms of a bill under consideration by the state Legislature.
The Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee voted in favor of House Bill 187 on Thursday. The committee’s seal of approval means the legislation will have its first floor debate in the coming days.
PACs will face the biggest adjustment. The bill would prohibit them from donating unlimited amounts to candidates. They would be limited to spending $5,000 on statewide races and $2,000 for other offices.
Limits on individual contributions to statewide candidates would jump from $1,000 to $2,500. The limit for nonstatewide candidates will remain at $1,000. The bill will have no effect on federal elections.
The bill would help to prevent voters from circumventing the rules, said Rep. Tim Stubson, R-Casper.
Stubson decided to sponsor the bill after an incident in a Natrona County Commissioner race. A constituent gave a $10,000-plus contribution to a PAC. The PAC donated it to one candidate. Channeling the money from one person to a PAC was a way of legally bypassing state laws. That type of bankrolling in elections is known as indirect giving, and it’s what the bill attempts to eliminate, said Peggy Nighswonger, state election director.
A similar situation happened in 2010. A few people gave more than $30,000 to one PAC. The PAC, which had more than a $100,000 in its coffers at one point, distributed the money to three candidates across the state.
“We’ve seen the potential for use of the unlimited PAC donations,” Stubson said. “We wanted to make sure the incentives were in place that full disclosure occurred and people knew where the money was coming from.”
The bill closes a pretty important loophole, said Marguerite Herman, president of the Cheyenne League of Women Voters.
If the bill passes it would cost the state $22,000 for computer software changes, Nighswonger said. If approved, the changes in the bill won’t be implemented until 2015.
A representative of at least one PAC said he wouldn’t be upset to see some sunshine on disclosure laws. Others said they wouldn’t have a problem with the new donation limits.
“It’s important that you have transparency in the process,” said Jonathan Downing, chairman of CONPAC Contractors PAC. “You got to do things in the light of day.”
The Wyoming Association of Realtors PAC has more than 2000 members whose contributions all go to candidates in the state.
“There probably should be limits, but we wouldn’t want to see them any lower,” said Laurie Urbigkit, a lobbyist for the association.
The PAC for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association doesn’t plunk down large contributions to politicians in the state, said Jim Magagna, executive vice president for the association and treasurer for the PAC.
“We only donate a few hundred dollars to the candidates,” he said. “It wouldn’t have a big effect on us.”
Opponents of the caps say the bill doesn’t jibe with federal law. But the state has jurisdiction on how PACs must operate in nonfederal elections.
“They’re trying to muzzle us,” said John Boesch, treasurer of the Central Wyoming Conservative PAC.
He said his PAC doesn’t have unlimited funds to sway elections, “but that’s not the point,” he said.
Amid all the calls for transparency, there were some concerns about a loophole that the bill doesn’t close. Candidates are allowed to break a few election laws one time before they face a penalty.
“It’s the mulligan clause,” said Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center.
If candidates don’t disclose all contributions or fail to submit their filings they are subject to a $10,000 fine.
Neal urged lawmakers to close the loophole, and asked them to propose an amendment to the bill to do so. The lawmakers on the committee chose not to.