Monday, February 18, 2008

Showing the money

Fun with campaign finance

Tuesday, Feb. 19 - Yesterday the House approved a campaign finance bill that threatens to flood state elections with more money. At best, it means that a legislative candidate could obtain the funds to run a winning campaign in a contested race with as few as two or three contributors backing her.

Contributors would be allowed to give up to $7,000 to the candidate of their choice. The bill in the House, as presently written, opens the door so wide that any very wealthy political contributor could pump an unlimited amount of dough into state and local campaigns. That's right. Pick your multi-millionaire - there will be no limit on the amount of money they can spend to elect candidates in Wyoming.

Wyoming’s current campaign contribution law allows individuals to contribute $1000 per candidate per election. The primary and general elections are considered separate elections, so, in effect, an individual can contribute up to $2000 to a candidate in an election year. The current law also sets an overall limit of $25,000 for contributions from any one individual.

While a significant number of contributors “limit out” in a typical governor’s race, $1000 contributions are relatively rare in legislative races, and no single contributor has pushed the $25,000 limit.

The current law imposes no limits on contributions from state political action committees (PACs). (Federal PACs face federal limits.) In 2006, Natrona County philanthropist Micky McMurry formed a PAC and used it to funnel about $11,600 to a candidate for the Natrona County Commission. In a completely legal move, he used a PAC to give more to a candidate than was allowed under the individual limit.

Citing the loophole diving in Natrona County, the ESPC asked the Legislature to consider putting contribution limits on state PACs.

This duly occurred during the 2007 interim (the time between legislative sessions, when committees meet to study legislation). Unfortunately, the Joint Interim Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee decided not only to plug the PAC loophole, but also to raise the individual contribution limits substantially – from $1000 per candidate per election to $3500 per candidate per election.

The ESPC opposed this move. We believe that it is better for a candidate to raise less money (apiece) from more people than to raise more money from fewer people. Raising contribution limits likely will have the effect of shrinking the pool of people contributing to campaigns, which already is relatively small. It also will feed public cynicism about the influence of money in politics.

These arguments were largely ignored and the bill passed the House yesterday with the individual limit of $3500 per candidate per election. The majority of members also approved an amendment lowering the proposed PAC contribution limit from $3500 per candidate per election ($7000 per candidate per election for statewide races) to $2300 per candidate per election.

Ironically, this combination of individual and PAC limits will allow Mr. McMurry, who set this train in motion with his PAC ruse in 2006, to give the same amount of money he gave before, this time without having to circumvent any limits. How, you ask? He can contribute $7,000 individually and use the PAC to send another $4,600 to the candidate of his choice - nearly exactly the amount he poured into the Natrona County Commission race in 2006.

The committee's main justification for hiking the individual contribution limits was "inflation." We can only hope that legislators are as concerned about inflation when it comes to something like the minimum wage for tipped employees, set at $2.30/hour since heaven knows when.

Electronic filing - an idea made for a big, square state

A number of legislators feel limits are unnecessary as long as there is transparency. This is the subject of HB 3, electronic filing, which would require candidates to electronically file their contribution and expenditure reports, and create a searchable database from these reports (beginning in the 2010 election year).

HB 3 took ahit yesterday with the addition of an amendment making electronic filing optional rather than mandatory. Proponents say the Secretary of State can scan paper report and post a pdf of the filing on the Internet. While better than the current system, those reports will not be part of the searchable database.

Once a system is established, however, we believe most candidates will choose to file electronically. Other states’ experiences indicate that candidates don’t want to appear inept or obstructive.

Certainly the current system of paper reports provides little transparency. Some are barely readable; others contain math errors and other inconsistencies. One has to be in Cheyenne to get to them, or request (and pay for) copies and mailing. The Secretary of State's office has strongly advocated moving to an electronic filing system to get Wyoming out of the accountability basement among the 50 states.

Please contact your legislator and ask for support of HB 3. We'd love to see the system require participation by all candidates, but we'll take as much as we can get this year.

Healthcare pilot project

We told the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee that we have a few questions about Senate File 85. The measure sets up a pilot project that proponents believe will, as they say in the business world, "incentiveize" low income people to live more healthy lifestyles. It's a good objective but the idea has not been analyzed by the Wyoming Healthcare Commission or the Department of Health. We wonder why.

Here are the questions that concern us most:

1. How will setting up a new, separate structure affect administrative costs? (One of the goals of reform is to reduce administrative costs.) For example, how will bills be processed and paid?

2. The bill outlines the groups of people to be given priority for participation. Will participation be completely voluntary?

3. The “administrator” of the pilot holds considerable power. If the administrator decides to “decline to offer … or limit these [clinical prevention] services to those who is his judgment will not benefit from them,” what recourse is available to the patient?

4. The program can withhold the state payments into the health service account if clients fail to comply with “specific preventative requirements.” Who decides this? What recourse is available to a family that finds itself in this situation?

5. The bill does not specify the qualifications for members of the benefit design committee. Sen. Charles Scott said Tuesday he has chosen to “trust the governor.” The governor apparently plans to name Hank Gardner of the University of Wyoming, Wendy Curran of his office, and Rick Schum of Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

6. What limits are imposed on healthcare providers serving the program? How will those costs be controlled?

7. Poor people live complicated lives (like all of us) but they are teetering at the poverty line. The state will need to find motivated people to participate in a study that asks them to change lifestyles and give up some unhealthy habits such as smoking. The bill allows the administrator to drop people from the program in order to control costs. What insurance company would not love the opportunity to walk away from its insurance contracts? Won’t the fact that they can be dis-enrolled discourage people from participating in the program?

8. Why is the state poaching money from the KidCare CHIP expansion to pay for this? Sure, the state has not obtained a needed waiver from the feds managing the program (funded via Medicaid). But the waiver applies only to the federal Medicaid funds. The state could decide simply to fund the expansion itself – or a significant portion of it. Why not use the state funds to advance that program?

9. Why are we pondering a significant new project without running it through the Wyoming Healthcare Commission for a detailed evaluation? Was the proposal vetted by the Department of Health or the College of Health Sciences at UW?