Public Financing of Elections in North Dakota?

North Dakota Legislative Watch

Two Democratic-NPL state senators said Friday the state should have a publicly financed legislative campaign system to keep legislative campaign spending from continuing to spiral upward.

“We really do need to limit our campaign spending. It’s getting out of hand,” said freshman Sen. Art Behm, D-Niagara.

He and Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said Friday they are introducing a bill to set up a “clean election” system funded by North Dakota taxpayers’ income tax checkoffs of $3. The system would be voluntary. Anyone who chooses not to use the public funds is not bound by limits or the conditions of the program.

Those who participate would get $10,000 in public funds if they agree to certain conditions and up to $20,000 if they are being outspent by someone who doesn’t participate in the publicly funded system.

The law would affect only legislative races. Behm said he campaigned on the issue, so the bill represents his keeping his word to his constituents. He spent about $3,000 in his campaign, in which he defeated Sen. Duane Mutch, R-Larimore, who had been in the Legislature since 1959.

Under the Behm-Mathern bill, a candidate who intends to use public funds must first raise donations from at least 150 North Dakota qualified voters, totaling $1,500 in “seed” money, then apply for the $10,000 in public funds.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem, R-Bismarck, was dismissive when he heard about the bill.

He doesn’t agree that there is a problem with spiraling campaign costs, and added, “They (Democrats) better look in the mirror as they put this in,” a reference to large sums of money spent in some of last fall’s legislative campaigns.

“They had far more money generated for the campaign than the Republicans did,” he said.

For instance, reports from the 2006 campaign show that Democrat Cornelius Kooren of Dickinson took in reportable donations totaling $16,000, with $7,000 of it coming from Sen. Kent Conrad’s DAKPAC fund. He did not win election.

In Minot, Sen. Bob Horne, the Democrat who defeated former Sen. Randy Schobinger, had $13,150 in reportable donations, $2,000 of it from the state Democratic-NPL Party and 3,000 from DAKPAC.

Republicans also spent relatively large sums on a few legislative campaigns. Bismarck’s District 35 GOP candidates’ campaign had $40,000 in reportable donations for the three-person ticket.

Stenehjem said there is a natural brake on legislative campaign spending when people who donate reach a point where they won’t give any more.

The bill calls for the secretary of state to administer the public funds and distribute them to qualifying candidates.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger said that if the program were launched and widely used, he might need more staff.

“It does place some major administrative duties on the secretary of state’s office. I don’t know that we have the staff,” he said.

He also wondered if there would be enough public funds to run the program.

With each legislative election year having up to 138 candidates around the state, if they all tapped into the fund, it would need $1.4 to cover one campaign, he said. To reach that, 460,000 taxpayers would have to give the $3 donation in one year or 230,000 in two years to generate enough money.

Update: The text of Senate Bill 2143 is now online. 

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2 Responses to Public Financing of Elections in North Dakota?

  1. Senator Tim Mathern says:

    Come on! The cost is a scare tactic. If ten people would do this it costs $100,000. $120,000 would be raised in a biennium with only 20,000 designating $3 each for an income taxe check off. Lets do it!

  2. Brent says:

    If you are going to do this, then all candidates must be under the same rules. It doesn’t matter in National elections if someone isn’t under public financing because of the special interest groups that funnel millions of dollars into the elections. In North Dakota, let there be public financing or let the people donate. Either/or.

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