Campaign Finance Reform


A total ban on gifts helps limit the most overt corruption, and it also prevents lobbyists from sharing expensive meals with legislators as a way to establish and maintain a cozy personal relationship. While some states have restricted gifts, others still see large amounts of spending by lobbyists on legislators.  In California last year, lawmakers and gubernatorial aides accepted close to $1 million in meals and entertainment from lobbyists.

There is no reason for lawmakers to be receiving gifts from lobbyists. New York recently limited all gifts given in a year to $75 per legislator.  Iowa has a good model law (Iowa Code Chapter 68B, Section 22) with limited and well crafted exemptions.  At least seven states have a total ban on gifts.


Even as the federal government does almost nothing to force lobbyists to disclose their activities, most states require some degree of disclosure on lobbyists.  Disclosure laws typically require lobbyists to list who they are lobbying for on what issues.  The amount of each lobbying contract is also typically disclosed.  Additionally, lobbying activities should be overseen by an independent body that has the authority to investigate lobbying activities for compliance with the disclosure law, the ability to punish violators, and a mandate to make lobbying information easily accessible to the public.  While many states are ahead of the federal government on this issue, many even now don't require lobbyists and their employees to report what they spend, and many other loopholes remain in existing state laws.

Best practices for lobbying disclosure and oversight include:

  • Monthly reporting of lobbying expenditures, including lobbying contract information and lobbyist compensation.
  • Online posting of lobby data, updated frequently.
  • A way to see who is lobbying on a particular bill and whether they are lobbying for or against it.
  • Aggregating information regarding how much particular industries are spending on lobbying.
Wisconsin has recently merged its elections and ethics oversight activities under the Government Accountability Board.  Wisconsin is one of only five states that require lobbyists to disclose what position they take on bills they are working on, and the state's website allows users to easily track lobbying on particular bills.  Washington's Public Disclosure Commission, established by the state's Public Disclosure Law (Chapter 42.17 RCW), has an internet site with comprehensive information on campaign finance, lobbying activities, and the personal financial disclosures of elected officials.


The federal lobbying scandal centered around Jack Abramoff, who was recently sentenced to almost six years in prison for bribery, is unfortunately mirrored by the flow of crooked money into our statehouses as well.  Recent examples are Governor Bob Taft of Ohio, who pled guilty for not disclosing gifts and golf outings paid for by lobbyists, and a Tennessee investigation which led to the arrests of five current and former lawmakers on charges of accepting bribes, conspiracy, and extortion.

Lobbying at our statehouses is a billion dollar per year business.  In 2004, nearly 47,000 separate groups hired more than 38,000 lobbyists, for an average of five lobbyists and $130,000 in expenditures per state legislator.  Especially in states with few legislative staff, this army of lobbyists often becomes the dominant source of policy information and power -- greased with lobbyist-paid dinners, entertainment, and travel.

To give just one example, the Center for Public Integrity has highlighted the pharmaceutical industry's lobbying at the state level, a $44 million operation during 2003 and 2004.  And they used the money to shoot down a wide variety of state reform efforts trying to lower the cost of prescription drugs for consumers.  Dozens of key lawmakers across the country were given tickets to sporting events, invited to golf outings, or flown to resorts.


Much has been made of the growing influence of small donors in the 2008 presidential race.  These donations have increased significantly, especially among the Democratic Party frontrunners, who received over half of their total contributions for the months of March, April, and May 2008 in contributions of less than $200 dollars.  However, such donors are responsible for only slightly more than a third of all donations in the presidential race from January 2007 to March 2008, up from just over a quarter in 2003-2004.  While this is significant, similar growth has not been seen in other races; however, there are creative policies that can help fuel an increase there as well.

Two basic types of donor incentives are currently being used in states - tax credits and refunds.  In states with tax credits, voters are allowed a credit against personal income taxes for a certain amount of campaign contributions.  States have a diversity of rules regarding which contributions qualify for the incentives, both the amount and the recipients (i.e., PACs, political parties, candidates) are regulated.

Minnesota has a unique program that allows taxpayers to receive a $50 refund for contributions made to political parties or candidates.  As a result of this law, small donations increased from 34% to 39.2% of total donations between 1990 and 1998, a small but significant improvement.  Recently, some have advocated for a system of campaign finance vouchers that would allow any citizen to spend a small amount on political contributions without having to take the money out of pocket and wait to receive a reimbursement at tax time.  

These small donor programs offer an alternative method of public financing that would go a long way to democratizing campaign finance and reducing the power of wealthy contributors.

US PIRG Education Fund - Toward a Small Donor Democracy
Minnesota Small Donor Tax Refund Law


Once the sleepy backwater of electoral politics, judicial elections have recently become a battleground where right wing and corporate groups spend large sums to fill the courts with jurists who will support their interests.  This is perhaps the most troubling example of money corrupting our politics, because instead of pay-to-play politics it gives us pay-to-win justice.  The independence of the judiciary simply cannot be maintained in an environment where jurists are competing for votes in high-priced, bare-knuckle political brawls.  

Those closest to the process are the most aware of the problems that have infused judicial elections.  The American Bar Association itself has endorsed public financing of judicial campaigns. Increasingly, judges are following suit and suggesting a variety of ways to get the money out of judicial politics, including public financing.  The group that is leading the effort to reform judicial elections is the Justice at Stake Campaign.  Much of the information contained in this section is derived from their reports, and legislators and advocates looking to bolster judicial independence in their states will find their resources and assistance invaluable.