The Week in Politics: Passing the Tab for Special Elections, Changing Campaign Finance Laws and More

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | May 20, 2016
Ted Wheeler, center, was elected mayor of Portland on Tuesday. (AP/Jonathan J. Cooper)

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Who Should Pay for Special Elections?

Across the country, special elections to fill vacant legislative seats are a near-weekly event. The cost of holding them adds up to millions of dollars annually. Often, counties are left with the bill. In California, some legislators favor shifting that burden elsewhere.

The state Senate elections committee gave unanimous approval earlier this year to a bill, sponsored by state Sen. Andy Vidak, which would require the state to reimburse counties for their administration costs. California used to do just that, prior to 2008, when its budget went kablooie. The reversal cost some counties big time. Los Angeles County alone has spent $18 million on special elections over the past six years.

"In Fresno County, [the senator] heard from his local electeds that it was causing stress on their already stretched budgets," said Jann Taber, Vidak's communications director.

Naturally, the California State Association of Counties is all for the idea. But it's not clear how much farther Vidak's bill will go.

It would make reimbursements retroactive to 2008, meaning the state would be out some $40 million right from the start. Senate appropriators have the proposal on hold and will decide by May 27 whether to kill it or move it along.

But at least that bill got a hearing. Another proposal requiring retiring legislators to pay part of the freight for special elections went nowhere in the state Assembly. It's one thing when a legislator dies -- no one expects his estate to kick in for the cost of choosing a successor. But so many legislators leave office to become lobbyists or for other lucrative gigs that state Rep. Jim Patterson thought it was only fitting that they use any leftover funds in their campaign accounts to defray the cost of the special elections their departures have prompted.

Self-interest being what it is, his colleagues didn't agree.

"It moved into the dark file of bill death," said Alisha Gallon, Patterson's spokeswoman.

A Whirlwind of Change in Campaign Finance Laws

Few politicians willingly give up potential campaign money. There's fresh evidence of that obvious fact from all over the country.

In California, the state Senate voted 24-8 to lift a two-year-old ban on fundraising during parts of the legislative season. The ban was put in place in the wake of a series of scandals that got three senators thrown out of office. Members weren't allowed to fundraise during eight weeks of the year -- four weeks during budget negotiations and the last four weeks of the session.

But with primaries coming up next month, senators found this an inconvenient hindrance. It wasn't fair, they argued, that they couldn't raise money while their opponents -- including members of the state Assembly -- could.

Similarly, the Missouri state Senate killed a proposal that would have limited campaign contributions. Missouri is the only state with no limits; campaign contributions were abolished in 2008. But the issue isn't entirely dead: Earlier this month, backers of a ballot measure to impose fundraising limits turned in 272,000 signatures to the secretary of state's office.

And on Tuesday, a federal judge struck down Montana's limits on parties and political action committees' contributions to candidates for statewide office. The state will appeal, but for now, limits revert to where they were before a campaign fundraising law was passed in 1994.

That means candidates can raise a lot more money. PACs, for example, will now be able to give $10,610 to statewide candidates for their primary and general election campaigns, compared to just $1,320 before.

In Utah, GOP House Speaker Greg Hughes warned his colleagues Wednesday to maintain a clear distance between policy discussions and pleas for campaign donations. The comments came in response to the publication of an audio recording between GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and lobbyists. The governor was caught saying that his chief of staff and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox would be running the state so he could be on "high giddy-up" pursuing his re-election bid. He then added that he would be happy to meet with them individually or as a group to collect campaign checks.

In Kentucky, Longtime Incumbents Shown the Door

Two longtime legislators from Louisville lost their seats in primaries on Tuesday.

Republican state Rep. Tom Crimm, who had been in office for 20 years, was unseated by attorney Jason Nemes. On the Democratic side, Attica Scott, a member of the Metro Council, easily defeated Tom Riner, who had served in the state House since 1982.

Riner had drawn criticism from Democrats for helping Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk who became nationally famous for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

In another GOP state House primary, Tony Quillen won, even though he'd tried to drop out of the race. Quillen ran for the seat in a March special election. After losing, he unsuccessfully sought to withdraw from the race to give fellow Republican Danny Bentley a free ride to the nomination for a full term.

Quillen won easily, but party officials say that the results won't count and that Bentley will, in fact, be the nominee.

"I can't lie," Quillen told The Daily Independent. "It did put a big smile on my face when I drove home tonight."

Portland Gets New Mayor and Higher Gas Prices

Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler was elected Tuesday as the new mayor of Portland. He faced 14 opponents, but by taking a majority of the vote (56 percent), Wheeler was able to avoid a runoff in November.

Portland is booming, but Wheeler pledged to address income inequality, build more affordable housing and reduce homelessness.

Portland voters also voted to raise gas taxes in the city by a dime for four years. The measure is expected to raise $64 million, which will be spent on roads and pedestrian and bicyclist safety improvements.

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