Washington, Take Note: States Pass Campaign Finance Reform

If lawmakers in the next Congress are looking for ideas on campaign finance reform, they can turn to six states that have just passed ballot initiatives limiting special-interest funds in state elections.

Reform advocates say the results in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Montana, and Nevada point to a groundswell of public concern about the way elections are run in the United States.

"I think Congress will have the opportunity to take a look at what the voters think is good reform and perhaps use a hybrid of that to come up with a solution in Washington," says Donna Edwards of the Center for a New Democracy.

Some groups plan to use the ballot initiatives to demand action in Washington. "This is the time to ride that crest to victory in terms of getting Congress and the president to respond to the demand and hunger for meaningful reform," says Tony Miller of Californians for Political Reform.

Campaign finance reform, a hot issue in the final weeks of the presidential campaign, will be at the top of the 105th Congress's agenda. But it is unclear whether Democrats and Republicans will be able to agree on which reforms to adopt.

A bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin last summer would have set voluntary spending caps and banned contributions from political action committees for Senate campaigns. In return, candidates would receive free broadcast time and reduced postage rates. The bill never reached the Senate floor.

STATE initiatives, by contrast, passed with ease. Here is a state-by-state breakdown of the new measures:

Maine: Fifty-six percent of voters approved a voluntary system in which candidates to state office can either accept public money to pay for their campaigns or solicit private contributions.

To receive public funding, candidates must agree to limit campaign spending and forgo private support. If a candidate finances his or her own campaign through private contributions, the candidate is subject to limits of $250 per contribution for legislative campaigns and $500 per contribution for governor's races.

California: Voters rejected a mandatory spending cap in favor of a voluntary plan. The new contribution limits are $100 for local races, $250 for legislative races, and $500 for statewide races. The spending caps are set at $200,000 for the state Assembly, $400,000 for the state Senate, and $8 million for governor. Contributions to political parties are limited to $5,000.

Colorado: Sixty-six percent of voters supported Measure 16. It establishes voluntary campaign spending caps, bans corporate contributions, and limits individual contributions to $100 in legislative races and $500 to statewide candidates. If one candidate agrees to comply with the cap and another candidate does not, the law now allows the complying candidate to double his or her contribution limits.

Montana: Fifty-two percent of voters passed a ballot initiative that bans direct corporate contributions to influence the outcome of ballot measures.

The effort was a response to previous ballot races. In 1990, for example, the tobacco industry spent close to $1.5 million to defeat a $50,000 referendum campaign aimed at establishing a tax on tobacco products. The 25-cent tax was to fund an education program to discourage children from smoking. The measure was defeated.

Arkansas: Sixty-five percent of voters agreed that campaign contributions should be limited to $100 for local and legislative races and $300 in statewide races. They also approved granting a 100 percent tax credit for political contributions of $50 or less, an effort to encourage a larger number of voters to make smaller donations.

Nevada: Seventy-one percent of voters agreed to reduce the limit on individual contributions from $10,000 to $5,000.

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