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Idaho lawmakers reject removing campaign contribution limits

An Idaho legislative panel reviewing possible campaign finance reforms rejected a proposal Oct. 19 to lift the state’s campaign contribution limits.

Instead, the 10-member bipartisan committee unanimously agreed that Idaho’s modest contribution limits to candidates and political action committees should remain in place.

Sen. Michelle Stennett

Sen. Michelle Stennett

“Beyond my belief that it corrupts politics to put too much money in it, I think it just sends the wrong message on transparency,” said Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum.

Idaho limits contributions to statewide candidates at $5,000 per primary and general election. It limits contributions to legislative candidates at $1,000 per primary and general election. Campaign violations hover around $250 in civil penalties

Legislative staffers warned lawmakers that contribution limits across the country are being struck down in courts because judge have ruled they violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by restricting free speech rights. They added that removing the restrictions now could prevent Idaho from facing a lawsuit later.

For example, neighboring Montana has a case pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the legality of its state contribution limits — which are stricter than Idaho’s limits.

Idaho’s contribution limits were first enacted in 1974 when voters overwhelming approved a state sunshine law setting many of the rules used today to govern campaign contributions and lobbyist activity disclosures.

The panel agreed that Idaho’s campaign reporting system should be more robust and should require candidates to report their campaign activity more frequently.

During non-election years for state lawmakers and executive officers, candidates only have to file campaign disclosure reports twice a year.

Finally, the panel heard a presentation from Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona on requiring financial disclosures from elected officials and candidates. The issue has become a prominent topic as Idaho’s political leaders prepare for the 2018 election.

Idaho is one of just two states requiring no disclosures of personal assets from its lawmakers or candidates.

“It’s pretty basic, and as you can see from the form it’s pretty simple, it’s not a complicated thing,” Loertscher said. “And that was my desire at least, that it be pretty easy to do and not a complicated mess.”

The panel plans to meet in November to finalize their recommendations.

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