LINCOLN — Nebraska unshackled candidates from election spending limits Friday when it halted enforcement of a constitutionally questionable campaign finance law.
The Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission voted 8-0 to stop enforcing the Campaign Finance Limitation Act. The 1996 law seeks to hold down the cost of state elections, but a recent attorney general's opinion determined the law is probably unconstitutional.
Commissioners chose the course of action Friday because they believe it will most quickly settle the legal issues surrounding Nebraska's law, which funnels public funds to candidates whose opponents exceed voluntary spending limits.
Attorney General Jon Bruning must file a lawsuit when a state agency refuses to enforce a law, which will soon put the matter before the courts.
The commission also will stop enforcing a provision of the law that limited special interest contributions to no more than 75 percent of the candidate's spending. But candidates must still disclose their donations and donors in regular reports.
State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, a Republican who has tried three times to repeal campaign finance limits in the Legislature, said he was confident the law will soon be found unconstitutional.
He argued that the law forces special interest groups to spend money only on advertising meant to influence voters rather than on the candidates themselves.
"It's kind of like putting toothpaste back in the tube," he said. "It was foolish to think we could regulate money out of the system."
The Accountability and Disclosure Commission could have waited for a candidate to either ignore the law or challenge it. But that likely would have taken longer, leaving candidates in limbo with the 2012 elections looming.
"No one wanted the election process of our state to be disrupted for any reason," said Frank Daley, executive director of the commission.
When the commission officially notifies the attorney general of its decision next week, Bruning will have 10 days to file suit, Daley said. He wasn't sure whether the suit would go before a district judge or directly to the State Supreme Court.
Bruning's office did not respond to requests for comment.
At stake is a law that provides public funds to state office candidates if they abide by voluntary spending limits. Those who don't abide trigger "fair fight" money for their opponents.
The trigger mechanism came under scrutiny in June when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled an Arizona campaign finance law unconstitutional.
That law, similar to Nebraska's, infringed on free-speech rights of candidates whose spending decisions could benefit their opponents with public money, the high court ruled.
Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, a Democrat, said while the Supreme Court had a problem with the trigger mechanism, it "generally upheld the concept of public funding of campaigns."
Avery plans to introduce legislation to shore up Nebraska's campaign finance law. He argued that the issue should not be partisan but based on what is best for voters.
"Is it in the public interest that we have unlimited special interest money in campaigns?" he asked. "My answer is it is not."
Nebraska's leading political parties offered starkly different reactions to ending regulation of campaign finance.
Chris Triebsch, political director for the Nebraska Democratic Party, expects the decision to unleash a flood of money from corporations and special interests.
"It is good for Nebraska to have elections that are not bought and paid for," he said.
Meanwhile, Mark Fahleson, chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party, hailed the decision as a victory for free speech.
"This will certainly help to level the playing field for Republican candidates who've been restricted by the (law) for two decades in their ability to respond to attacks waged by shadowy and deep-pocketed special interest groups from the other side," he said.
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