Friday, February 17, 2006

Campaign Finance Showdown

by Kyle Michaelis
In the world of Nebraska legislative politics, a battle doesn't get much bigger than six-term Sen. Chris Beutler of Lincoln versus Speaker of the Legislature Kermit Brashear of Omaha. Of course, Ernie Chambers could be more involved, but then you're likely to get more of a political spectacle than a debate.

On the important issue of reforming or repealing Nebraska's campaign finance laws, some of the most progressive in the nation, Nebraska got an actual debate between two senators playing for keeps before they are term-limited out of office later this year. With Beutler defending the campaign laws he helped write and trying to adapt them to survive his departure, Brashear is taking one last swipe at this equalizing force in Nebraska politics that has been a constant ideological irritant to his "Cash is King" ethic.

In this first of what is likely to be several rounds of battle, I am happy to report that Beutler (and those voters who want fair elections decided by more than dollar $igns) came away victorious. The Lincoln Journal-Star reports:
An all-or-nothing clash over campaign finance laws Wednesday ended with two of the Legislature’s most respected senators shaking hands, and one conceding defeat.

“Talk to him,” Sen. Kermit Brashear of Omaha said to a TV reporter asking him for an interview. “He’s the winner.”

Brashear was referring to Sen. Chris Beutler. The Lincoln senator faced the prospect that the campaign finance laws he’s tried to uphold for more than a decade might be discarded altogether, as Brashear wants, rather than tightened and updated, as Beutler proposes.

But after a contentious, three-hour debate, Beutler left with a first-round victory — though not with a lot of confidence he has enough votes to usher it through two more rounds of debate.

“My sense is people here are not wildly enthusiastic” about updating the laws, Beutler said afterward....

[W]hen it comes to making changes, Beutler and other campaign law supporters may be aided by the ongoing legal wrangling over University of Nebraska Regent David Hergert, whose admission he broke several laws on his way to unseating a regent in 2004 has put a spotlight on the issue.

The bill (LB188) makes a variety of changes, including raising the amounts candidates for different offices can spend before opponents are eligible for public campaign dollars.

Other changes could prevent another “Hergert-type maneuver” by possibly triggering the release of public campaign dollars sooner, thereby increasing chances candidates would get the money when they could still use it in campaigns, Beutler said.

Hergert spent significantly more than he had estimated and topped limits that should have released funds to incumbent Don Blank. But he missed late reporting deadlines, causing Blank to miss out on thousands of dollars.

One change in the Beutler bill would require an additional campaign statement to be filed near the end of a race to determine whether a candidate is eligible for public dollars. Another would tie the release of funds to actual expenditures instead of estimates.

The bill also increases fines and penalties and gives the Accountability and Disclosure Commission — which reached a $33,512 settlement with Hergert — the power to subpoena witnesses when conducting preliminary investigations.

Unlike campaign finance laws in other states, Nebraska’s only applies to races where at least one candidate agrees to abide by spending limits. For legislative races, it’s $73,000 but would increase to $82,000 under the bill. The $50,000 voluntary cap in regents’ races would double under LB188.

If one candidate agrees to limit spending and another candidate exceeds the cap, the first candidate receives public funds.

Beutler argued the act has been “wildly successful” since it took effect in the 1994 election cycle because, in part, it cooled the rapid increases in spending. In 1978, a total of $350,000 was spent on legislative races. The figure increased to $1.7 million by 1994.

In 2004, spending on legislative races was less than it was in 1994, Beutler said.

Nobody in the Legislature bought their way into office, Beutler told fellow senators Wednesday. “There aren’t many legislatures in this country that can say that … and this act is the reason why,” he said.

Brashear, Hergert’s attorney when he reached the settlement with Accountability and Disclosure, said the law protects incumbents....

Raising money, he added, is a consequence of good ideas and the ability to promote them. “If nobody gives you money for your ideas, maybe you ought to go back and think about them,” Brashear said.

Brashear can talk all he wants about the campaign finance laws protecting incumbents, but his real objection is to their standing in the way of his wealthy Republican friends buying whatever elected office they can afford. Despite his attempts to tie high-dollar campaigns to successful messages, it's important to remember that Brashear's friends who have abused and manipulated the system, particularly Regents, Randy Ferlic, Howard Hawks, and the infamous Hergert, all did so with their own fortunes.

Through these campaigns and subsequent legal and legislative action, Brashear has done everything he could for eight years to undermine the established laws. He has stood in the way of their reform for years, and that they still survive is a testament to Nebraska voters' intrinsic understanding that, much to Brashear's chagrin, good government is not founded in selling influence and public office to the highest bidder.

The Omaha World-Herald's article on the debate adds:
State Sen. Ed Schrock of Elm Creek said he had supported Brashear's repeal proposal in previous years. But he said Hergert's violations changed his mind.

"I believe in a fair fight," Schrock said. "I don't like people to cheat"....

Despite Wednesday's defeat, Brashear said he plans to try again during second-round debate to repeal the campaign finance act.

Brashear is smart. When he declares Beutler "the winner", you can be sure he does so with fingers crossed and knife in hand behind his back. I only hope that Beutler's pessimism at the possibilities of passing these reforms is equally as calculated to pressure his colleagues to stand strong and do what's right for Nebraska by maintaining the legislature's qualified independence from the chains of corporate and special interest slavery.

David Hergert - NEVER AGAIN!!! Nothing else should need to be said for senators to answer Beutler's call to immediate action.

It would be a remarkable legislative victory and a fitting end to almost 25 years of honorable public service if Beutler actually proves able to win this battle. Regardless, the responsibility lies with every voter in this state to see that the next generation of senators share the vigilance that has thus far kept the likes of Brashear and Hergert at bay.

They will always have the money to fight for their interests. All we have in our defense is the law, and that's plenty enough so long as we remain united and strong.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you seen this article by Carville and Begala? I think it would be an excellent solution that everyone could agree on:


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