Campaign handout cap not being raised

South Carolina lawmakers have not considered raising campaign donation limits, though many other states have taken that step.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for unlimited spending by unions, corporations and other associations, 13 states have raised their limits on what people may contribute to candidates. South Carolina is not among them.

And this state isn't expected to join them any time soon, possibly because its current limits are about in the middle of the pack nationally, though its limits on contributions to state Senate candidates are lower than average, ranking 38th, according to the Center for Competitive Politics.

State lawmakers also may be avoiding raising limits because that might not jibe with many people's idea of positive ethics reform, a hot topic at the Statehouse during the past two years.

But some argue raising limits would be a positive step.

David Keating, the center's director, said recent First Amendment lawsuits over campaign spending have led to positive legislative changes.

"These 13 states are at the vanguard of a new movement to permit more political speech," he said. "By easing limits on campaign contributions, lawmakers in these states are advancing the First Amendment rights of their constituents - and making elections more competitive."

During the past year, Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Wyoming either raised or eliminated various campaign contribution limits. Vermont increased its contribution limits in January, and Oklahoma may pass them this year.

Of those nine, five at least doubled their limits, he said.

Keating said since the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling allowed trade associations, corporations, nonprofit groups, and labor unions to spend independently on candidates without limit, candidates have felt they need to raise their limits to have greater control over the debate.

"Political parties and candidates are trying to speak out in elections, but it's like they have one hand tied behind their back," he said. "A lot of it is just being realistic."

Still, Keating said he has heard little interest in South Carolina for changing its limits, currently $3,500 for statewide candidates and $1,000 for other candidates per election cycle.

Those contribution limits were set during South Carolina's last ethics reform push, following the Operation Lost Trust scandal, which resulted in 16 lawmakers being convicted of taking bribes.

John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause South Carolina, said he shares the concern about the state's non-competitive election scene. He noted in 1990, just before Operation Lost Trust, there were 101 contested House races. "This year, it's 31," he said.

Still, raising the limits is not the secret to making the state's elections more competitive. "Big money is a reason why this happens," he said, adding he would like to see the state move toward more public financing, such as Maine has done.

"I see no justification whatsoever for raising contribution limits," he added. "As a matter of fact there are a number of ways that contribution limits at the present time have been circumvented, and they really need to be tightened up."

Crangle cited donations from New York developer and libertarian activist Howard Rich, who has formed more than a dozen separate limited liability corporations. In many elections, several of those corporations have made maximum allowable donations to candidates.

But Keating said if you take limits off, as seven states have done, it can be easier to defeat a corrupt candidate because all it would take is a few big donors willing to take on the candidate.

"If someone is really corrupt, they usually have a reputation locally as being corrupt and someone who will take political retribution on others," he said. "As a result, people aren't all that keen on giving money to their opponents."

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, said it might make sense to raise South Carolina's limits in the future, if only to account for inflation since they were first imposed more than 20 years ago, when $3,500 was worth about $5,600 in today's dollars.

Hayes was among a series of lawmakers targeted in 2012 by an anonymous political organization that went by the label Conservative GOP PAC.

"It's obviously not fun to be on the receiving end when you don't know who is on the other end spending the money," he said. "It was a phantom group. I don't know who they were, where their money came from, and I may never know because they're not required to report."

Hayes said the current ethics bill is expected to provide more accountability for such anonymous spending - which was triggered by a S.C. Supreme Court ruling, not the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

However, state lawmakers shied away from responding to anonymous spending by raising donation limits to candidates as part of this year's ethics reform bill.

"The general thinking was we didn't want to lose focus," Hayes said, "and our primary focus was to strengthen and toughen our ethics laws."