More money is hardly the cure for what ails politics. It's more like the disease. Still, reasonable arguments can be made for raising Kentucky's limits on contributions to state and local campaigns.
Rather than test those arguments in an open debate with plenty of public notice, Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, hijacked a House bill as the vehicle for sneaking through a doubling of the limits — from $1,000 to $2,000 for candidates and from $2,500 to $5,000 for state and county political parties.
The Republican-controlled Senate approved the increases March 9 along a mostly party-line vote. Then the legislature's top Democrat, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, told reporters that he also supports the increases.
Lawmakers have a penchant for secrecy when it comes to directing money their way, whether in salaries and pensions or campaign contributions. With the Senate committee substitute for House Bill 203 in conference committee and two days left in the session, the fix may be in. But what would we hear if there were a real discussion?
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First, Thayer and Stumbo would have to defend changing the rules in the middle of the game. A governor's race and other statewide campaigns are under way, and the contribution limits have been unchanged for 19 years.
The logical and obvious time to make this change would be between elections, not in the middle of one.
One candidate for governor already has loaned $4.2 million of his personal wealth to his campaign so it's not surprising others want a chance to raise more money. We won't attempt to dissect all the motives and strategies that might be in play.
But lawmakers, who don't have elections until next year, are also looking out for themselves. If the sneak legislation becomes law, legislators would be spared from ever debating and voting on raising campaign contribution limits because the limits would be automatically increased every other year based on the Consumer Price Index.
These automatic increases flowing into lawmakers' campaign chests would be as odious as the automatic salary increases that lawmakers guarantee themselves by indexing their pay to the CPI, a consideration, it should be noted, not extended to Kentucky's minimum-wage workers.
The Senate substitute also would wreak havoc on the Registry of Election Finance, the agency charged with enforcing state campaign finance laws. Instead of monitoring campaign finances, the Registry would be scrambling to revise forms and manuals and explain the mid-game rule change. The disruption would come as the agency operates under an interim executive director and searches for a permanent one. Also, the Registry would get no money to implement the abrupt change, under the Senate plan.
A real discussion also would clear up ambiguity in the legislation likely to spawn confusion and maybe lawsuits. The new limits would take effect in July with other new laws. But reading the committee substitute, it's unclear whether candidates and parties could retroactively seek additional contributions for their primary campaigns. The primary is May 19.
What are the arguments in favor of an increase? As Stumbo said, the messages from candidates and parties are being drowned out by the inundation of money in the wake of Supreme Court rulings and the emergence of so-called issues non-profits that can spend unlimited amounts without disclosing the sources of their money.
Ever-increasing money flowing into politics is not giving Americans better government. Nor is it boosting participation. Kentucky just went through its most expensive election ever, last year's U.S. Senate race, which produced the state's lowest midterm turnout in 20 years.
An open and honest discussion would probably lead to public financing of elections.
Meanwhile any merits of the campaign contribution increase pending in the Kentucky legislature have been tainted by the process.