Do you remember when the Legislature took a semi-gutsy stand last year and limited donations to candidates from Political Action Committees (PACs) to $5,000?
The House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee on Thursday decided it wasn’t such a good idea. The panel voted 7-2 to remove the limit, even though the law had never actually been used during a Wyoming election.
In fact, the law became effective on Jan. 1, so it’s only been on the books for 15 days. If House Bill 38 is passed by the full House and it gets through the Senate for Gov. Matt Mead’s signature, the measure won’t even be a month old before it ends up in the legislative graveyard.
The committee bought the argument of Steve Klein, attorney for the ultra-conservative Wyoming Liberty Group, that since the courts have ruled free speech is money, Wyoming can’t limit any group’s donations to a candidate.
Klein called it “leveling the playing field” among donors. But Marguerite Herman, a lobbyist for the Wyoming League of Women Voters, said that claim is “disingenuous” at the very least. Backers of the PAC limit — who believe the rich shouldn’t be allowed to have more free speech than others just because they can literally buy elections — might call it ridiculous, and throw in a few colorful expletives.
HB38 had bipartisan opposition from Democratic Rep. James Byrd of Cheyenne and Republican Rep. Gerald Gay of Casper.
“Money and politics is a very dangerous mix,” Byrd said. “We’ll probably never get it right. … Every time we create a rule, some enterprising lawyers and legal scholars find a way around it that’s to their advantage.”
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, the committee’s chairman, is on the other side of the issue but echoed Byrd’s comments. “When limits are imposed, people always come up with creative ways to get around it,” he said.
Klein also agreed. As a lawyer who deals with campaign finance issues, he noted, “I will find a loophole and help you do what you want.”
Byrd said state legislators have only two scenarios to choose — “set a low limit or kick the door open wide and remove all the restrictions.”
The committee went with the latter, which Byrd maintained is by far the worst solution.
The Democrat said he doesn’t like to put a ceiling on campaign contributions, but added, “That equally restricts everybody, so the pain is shared across the board.”
“If you have a PAC that has a million dollars, or you have a member who can afford to put a million dollars into the PAC, as opposed to the West-side Knitting Club that goes out and has bake sales and they come up with $1,000, I can definitely tell you in that public campaign who is going to win,” Byrd said.
“Money would be no problem if all voters did their own independent research and went to a lot of different sources and weighed the pros and cons of the candidates,” Herman said. “But in the real world, money matters.
“If money is speech, then all of us who don’t have money are speechless,” she added.
Having wealthy interests donate huge amounts of money hasn’t been much of a problem in Wyoming so far, Byrd said, but he added, “We’ve just opened the door to see a million dollar county commissioners’ race.”
“We don’t want to inhibit free speech, or prohibit any group from having its voice heard in politics,” Byrd said. “We do want a level playing field, but when you inject money into it, it’s not a level playing field.”
Herman said the only counter-balance on unlimited donations is “unlimited transparency.”
“You have to track where the money is spent and where it comes from,” she explained. “But that wasn’t an issue in this bill.”
In other election-related legislation, the Senate approved two bills on first reading. HB52 would allow county clerks to establish “voting centers” where people can go instead of their actual precinct. The second, HB49, would revise requirements for the public to get initiatives and referendums on the ballot. It was approved unanimously on a voice vote.
HB52 received some opposition from senators who feared it would negatively impact rural voters. Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) called it “a bad bill” that could result in the closing of rural polling places in favor of voting centers in cities.
“On election day, you’re going to see people who have to travel anywhere from 40 to 80 miles to vote. … I think it will have the effect of suppressing the rural vote.” Sen. Curt Meier (R-LaGrange) went even further — he said the measure amounts to “disenfranchising rural voters.”
But Sen. Wayne Johnson (R-Cheyenne) reminded his colleagues the bill only makes it optional for county clerks to create voting centers. “Counties don’t have to do it,” he said.
Proponents of HB52 successfully argued that Wyoming essentially has voting centers now, since people may cast absentee ballots at the county clerk’s office prior to election day.
They also said creating voter centers that are convenient to reach might reduce the number of people who don’t vote simply because they don’t know where their mandatory polling place is located on the day of the election.
Under HB49, paid circulators of petitions to get issues on the ballot would be allowed in Wyoming. Scott said the change is due to a court’s ruling that found banning paid circulators is unconstitutional.