LINCOLN — Nebraska's Campaign Finance Limitation Act was officially buried a couple of weeks ago.
In its wake, the law's backers predict an explosion of spending on campaigns for state office.
A World-Herald analysis of legislative candidates' spending on this year's primary election — during which the law was suspended — showed no immediate increase in average spending. But the analysis offered hints that backers may be right.
» One legislative candidate promised, while the law was in place, to stick with its $46,000 primary election limit but wound up spending nearly $10,000 over that after the law was suspended.
» Another legislative candidate said he decided to do additional mailings, boosting his spending to nearly $54,000, because the limits had been lifted.
» Average spending by serious legislative candidates topped that of 2006, even though there were more than twice as many open seats in 2006.
» Average spending was up 45 percent from two years ago, when there were only three open seats.
“What it tells me is the (law) actually did work to suppress spending and fundraising,” said State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln.
Avery, now chairman of the Legislature's Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, led efforts before he was elected to get the spending limits passed.
But Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, an opponent of the law, said he didn't think the analysis showed anything conclusive.
“This almost would suggest that spending is stable in a way without the (law),” he said.
Lautenbaugh tried repeatedly to repeal the campaign finance law before the Nebraska Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional Aug. 3.
Based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision on an Arizona law, the Nebraska high court said the campaign spending limits violated the free speech rights of Nebraskans.
Spending limits under the law were voluntary, but candidates who chose not to abide by them risked having their opponents qualify for public funds.
The limits applied to a candidate's total spending and to the amount that could be raised from corporations, unions, political action committees and political parties.
The Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission stopped enforcing the law a year ago, after the ruling in the Arizona case.
Before the law was suspended, Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm had signed an affidavit to abide by the limits in his race for re-election to the Legislature.
But with the law suspended, and facing a well-funded opponent and attacks by independent groups, Haar ended up spending $55,571, well above what the limit would have been.
“I favor campaign spending limits,” he said, “but I have to compete in this race.”
His opponent, Mike Hilgers, spent $57,747 in his bid to unseat Haar.
Hilgers said he wanted to spend enough to get his message to every voter in the district. He got into the race after the campaign finance law was suspended but said he likely would not have agreed to abide by the limits.
The two combined for the top-spending legislative primary.
“This will be the new normal,” Haar said. “With no campaign spending limits, there will be a lot more money spent.”
Acela Turco, making her first electoral run, was one candidate who spent more. She put $57,510 into her race against Rick Kolowski for Omaha's District 31.
She said it was fortunate for her the spending limits law was suspended.
“It takes money these days to run a viable campaign,” she said. “I wanted to spend what it took to put my name out there.”
Still, 67 of the 71 legislative candidates this year each spent less than $46,000, which would have been the limit under the campaign finance law. Of those, 23 candidates were not required to file campaign finance reports because they did not raise or spend a minimum of $5,000.
Spending by candidates who were required to file averaged only $22,390 in the primary.
That put it in the ballpark with recent elections, the analysis found. It was lower than the 2008 average and higher than averages in 2010 and 2006.
Observers said campaign finance limits are only one factor in the spending trends. Term limits and the power of incumbents also appear to affect the averages.
Avery said large numbers of incumbents dampen campaign spending because fewer serious candidates are willing to challenge them.
With term limits, many potential challengers just wait until the incumbent is forced out of office. Nebraska lawmakers are limited to two terms in office.
Avery noted, however, that this year's spending average is not far from that of 2008, despite the smaller number of open seats this year. That suggests the elimination of spending limits may be pushing up spending.
Frank Daley, executive director of the Accountability and Disclosure Commission, said it may take time to see clearly what will happen without the limits.
“I don't know what to anticipate,” he said.
Spending on legislative races had been climbing steeply before the campaign finance law was put in place.
Between 1978 and 1992, when the limits were passed, the total spent on legislative campaigns increased more than fourfold.
The record was set by former Sen. John DeCamp of Neligh, who spent $114,236 on his unsuccessful 1986 re-election campaign.
Spending dropped 40 percent in the 1996 primary election, the first one after the law went into effect.
It remains to be seen whether the pre-limit spending trends will reassert themselves.
Another question is whether eliminating limits will encourage independent political groups to funnel more money to candidates instead of operating on their own.
Lautenbaugh has argued that spending limits fueled the independent groups by not allowing them to directly support candidates. But he isn't sure the trend can be reversed.
“I don't know if this is an exercise in trying to put toothpaste back in a tube,” he said.
Daley is skeptical. He said independent expenditures are part of a national political trend that started well after the campaign limits began.
Independent groups, such as the Nebraska Republican Party and the Nebraska State Education Association, were plenty evident in this year's primary election.
Sen. Beau McCoy's campaign factored in potential attacks by independent groups in his campaign spending decisions.
McCoy spent $53,857 on his bid for re-election to the west Omaha District 39 seat against Judy Domina.
While the law was in place, he had estimated that he would spend $46,000 on his primary election.
With the limits gone, he said, he decided to send out more mailings introducing himself to voters in his recently redrawn district.
“It's a new era in how we conduct ourselves,” McCoy said.
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Campaign spending in primary elections
|Year||Average spending||Open seats||Candidates|
Note: Spending averages include only candidates who raised or spent at least $5,000, the threshhold at which they must report to the state.
Source: World-Herald analysis of Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission data.