Political parties eagerly await return of refund program on July 1
Bruce Kaskubar admits when he first heard about Minnesota's political contribution refund program, he didn't believe it.
The Republican Party of Olmsted County chairman had just moved to the state. Someone told him he could donate money to a state political party or candidate for free. He figured that person must have been confused. But turns out, it was all true.
Under the program, donations of up to $50 per year to political parties and candidates who agree to abide by campaign spending limits are refunded by the state.
"It's completely unbelievable,"Kaskubar said.
Budget troubles led lawmakers to eliminate funding for the program. But after a four-year hiatus, the popular political refund program begins again on July 1. To kick off the refund's return, the Olmsted County DFL has scheduled a "refund rally" on Monday at its Rochester headquarters. Supporters are invited to drop by, sample refreshments and make a refundable donation.
Olmsted County DFL Chairwoman Lynn Wilson said the party's fundraising suffered when the refund went away and she is eager for its return. She said it helps people who would not otherwise be able to donate to be part of the political process.
"This empowers the people to become part of the political process, and once they start partaking, they are more engaged in it," she said.
Not to be outdone, the Republicans of Olmsted County also are preparing to launch their fundraising efforts to coincide with the return of the refund. But unlike Wilson, Kaskubar said he doesn't think this is a good use of taxpayer dollars.
"Philosophically, I think the program is stupid. I don't think the state has any business helping people make contributions for any purpose," he said.
Still, since it exists, he said his party will do its part to let its donors know it is available.
Lawmakers set aside $12 million over the next two years for the refund program. Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board Executive Director Gary Goldsmith said Minnesota is one of a small number of states with this sort of program. His organization collects data on where those refunds go and has discovered that historically Republicans have benefited far more from the program than Democrats. For instance, in 2009, Republicans claimed nearly $1.95 million in refunds while Democrats received $655,590.
In Olmsted County, both parties have put the program to good use. In 2008, the Olmsted County DFL claimed the most rebates of any local party unit with a total of $20,371. That same year, the Republican Party of Olmsted County claimed $17,328 in rebates. In 2009, local Republicans had the edge with $14,596 in refunds and the Democrats had $9,225.
State Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said she did not notice a huge difference in donations to her campaign when the refund program went away. One difference is that the program did enable some people to make a donation who otherwise would not have be able to afford it.
"It is more grassroots, and I think it's a good thing. It gets people into the idea that contributing to campaigns is something they should think about, they can think about," she said.
Preston state Rep. Greg Davids, the lead Republican on the House Taxes Committee, takes a different view. If Republicans win back control of the House, Davids said he would seek to have the program repealed because he says it's a waste of taxpayer dollars.
"We're taking money out of classrooms and nursing homes and public safety to pay politicians," he said.
Still, while he doesn't like it, Davids said he plans to take advantage of it in his fundraising for the 2014 election.
He added, "I don't think the program should be there, but it's there so you'd be at a great disadvantage if you don't use it."