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The sky-high cost of campaigns.

It costs a bundle to run for the legislature, and November's campaigns will be the most costly in history. Why are we spending so much?

Records are set to be broken. And when it comes to breaking campaign spending records for state legislative seats, it happens every two or four years. With elections scheduled this year for approximately 6,100 seats in 44 states, spending records set in 1988 and 1990 are likely to be shattered once more, as they were in 1991 in New Jersey--a state that elects legislators in odd-numbered years. There, last November's election set a record for total spending for state legislative campaigns: $15 million, a 34 percent increase in four years.

The most expensive New Jersey campaign, topping the 1987 record of $378,000, was for a Senate seat--$420,456--won by a challenger. Incumbents lost in two other expensive races that cost more than $400,000. Sixteen campaigns had price tags of more than $200,000 each.

Consider what may be expected this year in Washington state, where the numbers are close in the Senate: 25 Republicans, 24 Democrats and 24 seats up for election. In 1990, with the same partisan split and 25 seats up, five campaigns topped the spending record of $237,283 set in 1988 and seven other races cost more than $200,000. The 1990 record was set by Senator Ray Moore, whose successful bid for re-election cost $286,867. The challenger in that race, Andy McLauchlan, spent $237,840. The average cost for Senate races in 1990 for 47 candidates was $111,183, according to Washington's Public Disclosure Commission.

In Michigan, two candidates for the Senate spent more than $250,000 in 1986 races. Eight candidates exceeded that amount in 1990. That same year, five candidates for Michigan House spent more than $100,000. Not a single House candidate spent that much in 1986.

Or consider Oregon, where spending by 14 legislative candidates topped $120,000 in 1990. Gary Moncrief of Boise State University found that the average cost of campaigns for Oregon Senate seats increased 384 percent--adjusted for inflation--from 1980 to 1988 and the average cost of campaigning for a House seat went up 247 percent.

Less populated states are not immune from escalating campaign costs. In Idaho, for example, the average cost of running for a Senate seat tripled in 12 years--from $4,400 per candidate in 1978 to $15,000 in 1990. In Vermont the median cost of a Senate campaign increased 52 percent from 1984 to 1988.

Of course, for costly campaigns no state approaches California, where senators represent 744,000 constituents. Tom Hayden still holds the record of $2 million for an Assembly seat he won in 1982. Hayden and his general election opponent spent more thant $3 million in that race. Coming in second, so far, is Senator Cecil Green, who spent $1.4 million in 1988 successfully defending a seat he won the year before in a multimillion dollar special election. His opponent in 1988 spent $1 million.

In 1990, however, total spending on general election legislative campaigns in California declined to $23.9 million--down from $40.2 million in 1988, $30.4 million in 1986 and $24.2 million in 1984.

What fuels the escalating cost of state legislative campaigns? Inflation alone accounts for some of the increase. A campaign that cost $25,000 in 1978 would have cost $50,000 in 1990 dollars. But numerous studies have shown much larger increases over shorter periods of time. An NCSL survey showed increases of 219 percent and 140 percent in Alaska's Senate primary and general elections between 1982 and 1988. Oregon's Senate primary and general election costs increased 239 percent and 157 percent during the same period; House and Senate general election costs in Connecticut climbed 109 percent and 80 percent from 1982 to 1986; and in Kentucky the Senate primary and general election costs rose 289 percent and 172 percent from 1982 to 1986.

"Professionalization is a major factor in the hight cost of campaigns," says Herbert Alexander, director of the Citizens' Research Foundation of Los Angeles and author of Reform and Reality: The Financing of State and Local Campaigns. "State legislators who a generation ago walked around the district passing out combs and pencils bearing their names are now hiring full-time campaign managers, pollsters, advertising specialists and direct mail experts," Alexander says. "And none of that comes cheap."

Not only are campaigns becoming more professional, so are the legislatures themselves. Alexander comments that "public office at both the statewide and state legislative levels seems to have grown in desirability over the past decade."

In his study of four northwestern state legislatures Biose State's Moncrief says that in both Oregon and Washington, states at the mid-range in terms of professionalism, "there are probably a number of legislators in both states who now claim |legislator' as their primary occupation." When service in a state legislature becomes one's chief livelihood--as opposed to the tradition citizen-legislator making policy decisions for a relatively short time each year or every other year--"there is more at stake in protecting that livelihood by fending off opponents in primaries and general elections," Alexander says.

Even so, are campaigns costs getting out of hand? The legislators who have to raise the money say yes.

Representative Vera Katz of Oregon, speaker of the House until the Republicans took over after the 1990 election believes that the cost of running for the legislature is "absolutely too high."

Representative Frank Fitzgerald of Michigan says that campaign spending in his state "is growing uncontrollably."

Following the 1990 election in which his campaign set a spending record, Senator Ray Moore of Washington said he was "outraged" at the high cost of legislative campaigns.

"I've said all along," he declared, "that I would much rather spend this kind of money on feeding, clothing and housing people. The problems is that this money is available only for getting elected."

Assemblyman Ross Johnson of California, who has taken a leading role in the attempt to curb campaign costs by limiting contributions, believes that not only do campaigns cost too much but that candidates themselves hate fund raising. "Look," he says, "I don't know of a single legislator who enjoys asking for money, but it's necessary fact of political life."

Not everyone agrees that state legislative campaigns are too costly.

"Nostalgia buffs may long for the days when candidates kissed babies and marched in torchlight parades," Herbert Alexander says, "but those days are gone, and there is no way to bring them back. The issue is not how to de-professionalize politics," he said, "it is how to pay for modern campaigns in a way that reduces the opportunity for corruption or the apperance of corruption while instilling public confidence."

Alexander also argues that excessive limits on campaign money can work against challengers, who must overcome an incumbent's advantage in name recognition and ready access to political campaign money.

Whatever the arguments, the response to skyrocketing campaign costs and the public perception of the influence of money in politics has been in efforts to curtail expenditures, either by law or the initiative process.

The most direct method of holding down costs would be mandatory limits on expenditures. A 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Buckley vs. Valeo, precludes that option. Buckley struck down federal legislation limiting campaign expenditures except for voluntary acceptance of limits in return for a benefit such as public funding. Only 22 states, however, have some form of public financing, and just two of those-- Minnesota and Wisconsin--provide significant support for state legislative campaigns, ranging from 25 percent to 45 percent of the spending limit for House and Senate seats. In both states, the money available for public financing depends on the amount raised from taxpayer checkoffs. Hawaii is the only other state that provides public funding for legislative candidates, and the amount--only $250 per election for 1990--has not been sufficient to attract many candidates.

And public financing of political campaigns has become a controversial issue.

California is the bellwether state of legislative campaigns in terms of cost, controversy and confusion. In 1988, two campaign reform initiatives were on the ballot--Proposition 68, which covered only state legislative and not statewide races, provided for contribution limits, public funding accompanied by expenditure limits, and a prohibition of fund transfers between candidates. Proposition 73 covered all state offices and included contribution limits, a ban on transfers and a ban on public funding.

Proposition 68 passed with 53 percent of the vote, but so did Proposition 73--with 58 percent. Since it received the highest vote, Prop 73 superseded Prop 68. A legal battle resulted in a court decision in 1990 that Prop 73's contribution limits and the ban on transfers from one candidate to another were unconstitutional. The court said the contribution limits set by Prop 73 were not constitutional on the grounds that the limits were for a fiscal year rather than for an election. The decision left intact Prop 73's prohibition of public funding.

In the case of legislative candidates, the court ruling was stayed in order to give the California Supreme Court the opportunity to rule in another case where some provisions of Prop 68 were at issue. The stay order had the effect of leaving Prop 73's contribution limits in place for the 1990 state legislative races--but not for statewide campaigns.

Five days before the 1990 election, the Supreme Court issued a decision invalidating all provisions of Prop 68. Following the election, the federal court stay on Prop 73's contribution limis for legislative candidates was lifted--leaving California without contribution limits but with a ban on public funding--the only key provision of Prop 73 still intact.

In February 1992, the federal court decision on Prop 73 was upheld on appeal. Prop 73's sponsor, Assemblyman Ross Johnson, plans an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, when California voters were asked about campaign finance in a January 1990 poll, 75 percent of those responding advocated banning private contributions and providing tax money to pay for legislative races. They had their chance in November 1990 with a new initiative, Proposition 131, that combined term limitations with public funding, expenditure ceilings and contribution limits. The measure was defeated nearly 2 to 1.

Assemblyman Johnson, an opponent of public financing, has introduced legislation this session that seeks to reinstate key provisions of Prop 73: contribution limits to candidates for each election, contribution limits to political committees and parties on a calendar-year basis and a ban on fund transfers among candidates.

"The fact is you don't need public financing and spending limits to reduce the cost of campaigns," Johnson says. He maintains that Proposition 73 "proved conclusively that campaign spending can be reduced through contribution limits alone. This point is most dramatic for legislative candidates," he says, "where the contribution limits of Proposition 73 remained in effect for both the 1990 primary and general elections and spending for legislative campaigns actually decreased for the first time since 1976."

Johnson says the California debate over campaign finance reform has been reopened "with two conflicting views as to how this should be accomplished. On one side are those of us who have maintained that contribution limits alone can drastically reduce the cost of campaigns. On the other side are Common Cause and those who want to open the state treasury to politicians."

One organization on the "other side" is the California Commission on Campaign Financing, a privately funded research group that has published comprehensive studies of California campaign finance. It has recommended expenditure limits and public funding for campaign finance reform since its first major report in 1985. "We still hold that view," say Bob Stern, the commission's co-director.

Minnesota, with public funding for state legislative candidates who accept spending limits, may provide proponents of public financing with a good case. In 1990, the most expensive Senate race cost $172,512; the highest cost for a House seat was $36,991. Compared to Washington, which is similar in population, the highest Senate race was Moore''s at $286,867; the costliest House race was $239,944.

In many states, contribution limits have been the most popular vehicle for campaign finance reform. Twenty-nine states limit the amount that individuals may contribute to a political campaign, 37 limit or prohibit corporate contributions, 29 limit or prohibit union contributions and 25 limit contributions from political action committees (PACs).

An unpredictable factor that may influence spending is the amount of money available. In every state, there is a finite pool of money for political campaigns and as some politicians say, "We're all fishing in the same water."

What is spent will be determined, at least to some degree, by the number of campaigns, the intensity of the competition and what is at stake. At least part of California's drop in spending for legislative races in 1990, for instance, could be attributed to the fact that candidates for the Senate and Assembly were competing for money from the pool with candidates in a hotly contested governor's race where there was no incumbent.

Campaign costs in any state are likely to be higher in an election year prior to reapportionment because there will probably be more money in the pool and more than the usual number of competitive races. Campaign spending can also be expected to be higher in the first election following reapportionment, depending on the number of incumbents lumped together in new districts and the number of open seats resulting from the redrawing of district lines. In both instances, control of the legislature is at stake, a situation that makes individuals and groups more generous with their contributions. Term limitations, currently in effect in California, Colorado and Oklahoma, for example, are likely to be responsible for record campaign spending when incumbents are precluded from running for re-election. In California there will eventually be 120 seats open; Colorado will have 100; Oklahoma 149.

In the 1991 legislative sessions, contribution limits continued to be "the most popular way to cure the supposed ills of an existing state program," reported Ronald Michaelson, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections. Michaelson told the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws that 10 states passed new laws on contribution limits. Other legislation dealt with campaign finance reporting, transfers between campaign finance committees, independent expenditures and the use of campaign surpluses.

What 1992 may bring in legislative efforts to reform campaign finace--and in ballot initiatives with the same objective--remains to be seen. One thing is predictable, however: Somewhere, in one or more of those 44 states with legislative elections coming up in November, somebody's campaign will set a new record for spending.

New Hampshire Candidates Limit Themselves

In states where public financing of political campaigns is not favored, legislators have turned to caps on contributions in an attempt to hold down the cost of campaigns. That has not proved to be effective, however, as evidenced by a continuing increase in the cost of state legislative races.

In recent years, legislators have been turning their attention to ways other than contribution limits to circumvent Buckley vs. Valeo.

New Hamshire provides an example. The New Hampshire experiment includes voluntary acceptance of expenditure limits, but no public funding. The enticement for accepting limits is waiver of filing fees and petitions, making it easier for candidates who accept the limit to get on the ballot.

While expenditure limits, filing fees and the number of petition signatures are most significant for statewide and federal offices, the New Hampshire statute includes an expenditure cap of $15,000 for the state Senate in the primary and general elections and a limit of 25 cents per registered voter per election in races for the House. Candidates who voluntarily agree to accept the limits and then exceed them are subject to penalties proportionate to their excess spending.

The New Hampshire law was in effect for the first time in the 1990 elections. So how did it work? Very well, according to Secretary of State William Gardner.

Since the law became effective, 1,430 candidates for all positions covered by the statute have been on the ballot. If that appears to be an excessive number for a single election, it is explained by the size of the New Hampshire legislature: 400 in the House, 24 in the Senate. Only five candidates declined to accept spending limits.

"There is no question that the law succeeded in holding down campaign costs," Gardner said. "If you look at the amounts spent by candidates in 1990, it was substantially less than it was for other elections going back several years, and that was the major intent of the law--to try to stop the escalating cost of campaigns."

Six candidates for the state Senate who agreed to the spending cap exceeded the $15,000 limit for the general election and were assessed fines ranging from more than $3,000 for a campaign that cost $21,270--the highest of all legislative races in the state--to 33 cents for a campaign that went $33 over the limit. The schedule of fines is 1 percent for excess spending under $100, 5 percent for $100 to $500, 10 percent for $500 to $1,000, and 50 percent for excess spending over $1,000.

Legislation to increase the amount that House candidates may spend--from 25 cents to 50 cents per registered voter--has passed the House and is in a Senate committee. The pending legislation also proposes in increases in the penalties for all campaigns that exceed the spending limits.

A legislator in Vermont has patterned legislation in his state after New Hampshire's campaign measure. Senator William Doyle's bill, which has passed the Senate and is pending in the House, sets expenditure limits for statewide offices and members of the General Assembly. Federal offices would be excluded.

Under Doyle's proposal, the spending cap would be $2,500 for the state Senate--multiplied by the number of senators to be elected in the district--and $1,500 for a single-member House district or $2,500 for a double-member district. Acceptance of the limits would be voluntary, but those exceeding the voluntary caps would be fined 100 percent of the excess expenditure. Doyle's proposal would also allow challengers to spend 30 percent more than incumbents.

Candidates who do not agree to the spending limits could not accept contributions totaling more than $100 for any election from a single source, political committee or another candidate. And five days before a primary or general election, the secretary of state would be required to publish a list of candidates who accepted the limits and those who did not.

Anatomy of a Campaign

When Ray Moore of Seattle celebrated his first election campaign victory in 1978, he had no inkling that just 12 years down the road he would be setting an unenviable record in Washington state politics. Running for a state Senate seat against an incumbent in 1978, he had to spend $40,000.

Senator Moore's bid for re-election in 1982 cost $65,000. In 1986 the cost went up steeply, to $110,000. But even that did not prepare him for 1990, when he set a record for a state legislative race in Washington--$286,867. Even adjusted for inflation, that's an increase of 357 percent in 12 years.

"It's a record I would prefer not to hold," he says.

Where does the money go in a state legislative campaign that costs more than a quarter of a million dollars?

In Senator Moore's campaign the largest single item was for a direct mail promotion, which accounted for 30 percent ($86,059) of the total expenditures. Costs for the mail program included printing, postage and mail house service for approximately 20 mailings. Direct mailings are important in the senator's district because it is an urban area that includes many large apartment buildings where doorbelling--one of Moore's favorite campaign tactics--is impossible.

Consultant services were the next most expensive item at $64,615--23 percent of the campaign's total cost. The consultant category included $16,062 for polling.

Administrative items--campaign staff salaries, office equipment, phones, rent, postage, office supplies and miscellaneous costs came to $43,687--15 percent of the total.

TV and radio advertising were fourth most expensive at $27,741.

Senator Moore holds fund-raising events throughout his four-year Senate term, and the expenditures for these fund raisers is included in the cost of his next campaign. From 1987-1990, 17 fund-raising events cost the 1990 campaign $18,486. His other major campaign cost was $16,474 for contributions to other candidates and issue campaigns.

The balance of the expenditures for Senator Moore's campaign--$29,805--went for phone banks, a doorbelling program, billboards, yard signs and travel and meals. The campaign wound up with a surplus of approximately $1,200.

Senator Moore says that he would like to see spending limits for campaigns, "but I'm not sure the general public cares how much is spent. When I raised and spent the most money in a legislative race in this state's history, there was no outpouring of public outrage. Only the media grumbled," he observed.

And given past experience, he is not certain that campaign reform would accomplish its goal.

"Campaign reform?" he asked. "In this state we've resisted that plus other reforms. And when we do try campaign reform, it only seems to make things worse. Public disclosure hasn't deterred special interest financing. Its only notable result is another mountain of paperwork and another bureaucracy," he said, "and still the public doesn't know who's really buying elections."

The senator said that he does hear sharp criticism about the quality of campaign tactics and the length of campaigns. "Perhaps legislative efforts would be better spent in these areas," he says.

Tommy Neal is NCSL's campaign reform and elections specialist.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Neal, Tommy
Publication:State Legislatures
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 1, 1992
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