FRANKFORT ― It started out as “a simple little bill” to create a consistent threshold for having to report campaign finances, according to its original sponsor. 

But then it got “hijacked” by legislative leaders who had a more ambitious plan to significantly increase campaign contribution limits.

House Bill 203, sponsored by Rep. Tanya Pullin, D-South Shore, would have established a consistent minimum level of contributions for a Kentucky political campaign before filing reports with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance. The minimum would also be raised from $1,000 to $3,000.

Pullin is known among her colleagues as a thorough and generally bipartisan lawmaker, an accomplished attorney who understands how to legislate. The House passed her bill easily.

But when she went before the Senate’s State and Local Government Committee, Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, amended the bill with more than a few changes. His version would double the maximum a contributor could give to a campaign from $1,000 to $2,000 and then index it in future years to the Consumer Price Index.

That would allow the limit to increase over time without lawmakers having to take a public vote on it.

Thayer’s Senate substitute would also double limits on contributions to parties, and it would become effective right before this fall’s gubernatorial campaign. After the committee approved the changes, Pullin said she felt that her bill had been “hijacked.”

The surprise amendment in the Senate was 31 pages long with several provisions raising various limits on contributions and in the future tying them to the CPI,” Pullin said. “That would allow them to go up in the future and more importantly allow them to go up without any public scrutiny.”

She also objected to “changing the rules in the middle of the game” by making the changes applicable to the governor’s race between the primary and general elections.

But surprisingly, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, didn’t object, saying the limits hadn’t been increased in 25 years, and he supported the changes. Still, Pullin persuaded the House not to concur with the Senate changes when the bill came back for final passage and a conference committee was appointed to work out a compromise with Pullin heading the House delegation.

But it quickly became apparent to Pullin that with Thayer and Stumbo behind the amended version, the final product would bear little resemblance to her original bill. If that’s what lawmakers wanted, Pullin said, that was fine. But it wasn’t what she intended, and she didn’t want her name historically associated with legislation she couldn’t support.

So she withdrew as sponsor of the bill, which also had the effect of removing her from the conference committee. Stumbo appointed Democratic Whip Johnny Bell of Glasgow to head up the House delegation on the committee and carry the compromise product in the House.

More changes were made to the bill in the conference committee, including allowing contributions to parties’ “building funds.” Existing language in Kentucky’s campaign laws which limited to $50,000 the amount a candidate could loan his campaign and then recoup through fundraising was also removed.

Again, the measure flew through the Republican dominated Senate. But something went wrong in the House early Wednesday morning when Bell asked his weary colleagues to pass the bill.

Bell’s argument was that “dark money” groups, outside non-profit groups which under a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling don’t have to identify contributors will continue to be used to attack legislative incumbents in campaigns.

Two Democrats, Rep. Tom Riner and Rep. Jim Wayne, both of Louisville, made impassioned speeches against the bill. 

This bill and the way it was passed in darkness, in the wee hours of the morning, places the mantle of shame on the General Assembly,” Riner said.

Wayne said the bill would make the General Assembly “for sale to the highest bidder,” leaving lawmakers indebted to wealthy contributors who would influence votes while average citizens would  be priced out of the political system.

We are putting state government on sale like a side of beef,” Wayne said.

When Stumbo called for a vote, the tally board lit up with “no” votes. The totals kept changing as clearly conflicted legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, changed votes from no to yes and back to no. At times, the bill had enough votes to pass, but then several switched to no. By the time Stumbo closed the vote, the measure failed 49-43.

Pullin said she didn’t whip up votes to defeat the bill, but she voted against it. There were 23 Democrats who joined the 26 Republicans who voted against it, including Democratic Speaker Pro Tem Jody Richards.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.

 

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