Campaign contribution legislation divides state lawmakers along unexpected lines

Stage is set for showdown in final day of legislative session

By: - June 14, 2023 2:47 pm

Democrats are divided over a bill seeking to increase the cap on individual political campaign contributions from $1,000 to $2,000 a year and double the amount of anonymous donations from $100 to $200. (Getty image)

Controversy over the role of money in politics has taken center stage at the Rhode Island State House.

And the list of supporters versus opponents is not what you might expect for a Republican-led bill that would double the amount of money individual donors can give to candidates.

Indeed, the House’s 41-29 vote Monday to approve Rep. Brian Newberry’s legislation included 32 Democrats, along with all nine Republicans. Twenty-nine Democrats opposed the bill, while five members – including the chamber’s sole independent, Rep. Jon Brien of Woonsocket, did not vote. 

Similarly, the Senate passage Wednesday on similar (though not identical) legislation by Sen. Thomas Paolino, a Lincoln Republican, brought together Republicans and some Democrats in a 22-14 vote.

The Rhode Island House is slated to take up the Senate version of the bill at 4 p.m. Thursday. 

If approved, the bill would mark the first increase in personal donation maximums in 30 years – hiking the annual, individual donation cap from $1,000 to $2,000 a year, and doubling the amount of anonymous donations from $100 to $200.

Proponents say these changes aim to level the playing field for political newcomers and underdogs by helping them raise money more easily. But critics contend that the unreported donation clause perpetuates “dark money” in politics, and that a $2,000 donation cap only increases the influence of wealthy lobbyists.

Fiery debate between the two sides played out on the House floor Monday and again before the Senate on Wednesday. 

Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican and the primary driver of the bill, explained how inflationary cost hikes have made basic campaign necessities like mailers and yard signs more expensive. Yet the existing donation caps have remained unchanged since the 1990s. 

“Twenty years ago, you could pay for a House race with $5,000,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “Now, you can’t. You need more than that. It’s just the reality.”

Twenty years ago, you could pay for a House race with $5,000. Now, you can’t. You need more than that. It’s just the reality.

– Rep. Brian Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican who sponsored a bill seeking to double the maximum campaign donations from individuals

Rep. Brian Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican, says caps on political campaign contributions which have been in place since the 1990s are unrealistic given the actual costs now of running for office. (Courtesy of Rhode Island House of Representatives)

Still, Newberry acknowledged that most state and local races don’t need million-dollar war chests to win.

He pointed to Republican Rep. Barbara Fenton-Fung’s successful 2020 run against former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, in which the Cranston challenger defeated the Democratic incumbent by double-digit percentage points despite Mattiello’s $340,000 campaign spend. Fenton-Fung spent just over $70,000 on her campaign, according to public finance reports. 

Doubling campaign contribution caps hardly welcomes an influx of wealth and power, since few donations even meet the existing $1,000 cap, Newberry said. Instead, it offers a chance for lesser known candidates to compete, especially if people can donate up to $200 without having to have their name attached.

John Marion, executive director for Common Cause Rhode Island, agreed that few donations hit the existing $1,000 limit. But that was not justification to raise it higher, he said.

Common Cause opposes both changes to campaign contributions – though it supports other campaign finance reforms included in the bill that expand public financing to primary elections and clarify definitions of “accounts payable” and “fair market value” of in-kind contributions.

“Lobbyists tend to be the maximum contributors and legislative leaders tend to get the most maximum contributions,” Marion said. “This would allow those with the largest warchests to maintain their grip on power.”

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, who voted for the House bill, pointed out during debate Monday that he had no part in the crafting or advancing of the legislation.

The bill also drew support from other Democratic leaders, including House Majority Leader Christopher Blazejewski and Majority Whip Katherine Kazarian, the latter of whom co-sponsored the bill. Kazarian did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

On the Senate side, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Majority Leader Ryan Pearson both backed the bill.

“At the end of the day, what we have before us is a compromise,” Pearson, of Cumberland, said during Wednesday’s debate. “We haven’t updated this in decades and we need to.”

Jeff Levy, a lawyer and husband of Democratic former Sen. Gayle Goldin also defended the legislation on Twitter. 

Levy declined to comment beyond his Twitter posts when called on Wednesday.

Strong opposition from progressives

Progressive Democrats, meanwhile, came out fiercely against the changes.

Rep. David Morales, a Providence Democrat, condemned the legislation as “self-serving,” “shameful” and “insulting.” 

By passing this bill, we would essentially be enabling and empowering wealthy people and special interests to exercise further influence in our political system along with policy decisions,” Morales said.

Sen. Sam Bell, a Providence Democrat, shared similarly harsh words with his colleagues Wednesday.

“Quite frankly, I think this is the worst piece of legislation that’s been on the floor of the chamber since I was born,” Bell said. 

Quite frankly, I think this is the worst piece of legislation that’s been on the floor of the chamber since I was born.

– Sen. Sam Bell, a Providence Democrat, an opponent of Sen. Thomas Paolino’s bill to increase the cap for individual political campaign donations

Many opponents insisted that coalition and community building – evidenced through lots of small donations – was a better way to win elections.

“It’s not about the money, it’s about the quality of the candidate,” said Rep. Teresa Tanzi, a Narragansett Democrat. “There shouldn’t be king or queen makers out there who can come with little fairy wands and say ‘I am choosing you to beat this person.’”

Tanzi also noted that in local town council or school committee races, where candidates often raise little to no money, even a few $2,000 donations could flip an outcome. 

Twenty-seven states, including Connecticut, distinguish campaign contributions limits by race or position, according to 2021 information from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Others, such as Massachusetts, separate donation caps by type of donor – lobbyists in Massachusetts, for example, can only donate $200 per calendar year to a candidate while other individuals can donate up to $1,000.

Although Common Cause opposes any increase in Rhode Island’s campaign contributions, distinctions like these would make it more palatable to Marion.

Sen. Victoria Gu, a Westerly Democrat who voted against the bill, said it was a “false equivalency” to compare Rhode Island to other states, noting the much larger size of a California Senate district, for example, compared to one in the Ocean State.

Critics also blasted the anonymous donation provision, citing transparency issues. Rep. Arthur Handy, a Cranston Democrat, said most of his donations are under $200.

“Going to $200, you’re really cutting out, in my case, the lion’s share of my donors,” Handy said. “You won’t know who’s donating to me at all.”

Others who voted against the bill noted their support for other elements of the legislation, such as making matching public funds available to primary candidates, as was suggested by Rhode Island Secretary of State Gregg Amore. Amore still backs this provision though not the way the House legislation has crafted it: only reimbursing the winners of primaries. The Senate version of the bill offers public funds to candidates up front, which is Amore’s preference.

“He believes upfront funding would result in more equitable campaigns during the primary stage,” Faith Chybowski, a spokesperson for Amore, said in an email on Wednesday. 

The Rhode Island Board of Elections, which also made suggestions incorporated into the bill, didn’t take a stance either way. 

Should this legislation become law, the Board’s Campaign Finance team will work to implement these changes and ensure that candidates and campaign treasurers are aware of new contribution limits and reporting requirements,” Christopher Hunter, a spokesperson for the board, said in an emailed statement.

McKee’s office did not return inquiries for comment.


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.