Donation Limits May Snag Campaign Finance Package

Article excerpt

ATLANTA -- In a state where special interests already exercise a disproportionate influence over campaign financing, public interest groups are worried that the General Assembly may be about to increase contribution limits.

Gov. Roy Barnes is expected to introduce a campaign finance reform package within the next week or two that would include, among other things, stricter disclosure requirements.

In keeping with the federal system, the legislation also would switch Georgia from annual contribution caps to limits that would apply to the full two- or four-year election cycle.

It's unclear whether that switch would be accompanied by an increase in contribution limits to candidates for statewide office and the General Assembly. But some legislative leaders are predicting that a bill will emerge raising the limit from the current $8,000 per contributor per election cycle in statewide campaigns and $3,000 per contributor for lawmakers.

"There's a relatively small number of people who can hit the current limit," said Steve Alfred, executive director of the Georgia chapter of Common Cause. "Increase the limit and that same small group is going to have more influence."

Statistics show that Georgia politicians already rely heavily on the largesse of corporations, political action committees and wealthy individuals.

A Times-Union analysis of campaign finance reports submitted by 11 of the 55 state senators and 22 of the 180 House members revealed that a vast majority got much more than half of their campaign contributions last year from businesses and PACs. Eight of the lawmakers who took in little money in 1999 received 100 percent of their donations from corporate and/or PAC contributors.

From a statewide perspective, only 0.6 percent of Georgia's voting-age population contributed to legislative candidates during the 1996 election cycle, the lowest participation among 12 states in a study conducted by The National Institute on Money in State Politics.

The same study ranked Georgia ninth in the percentage of contributions of $100 or less, while the 977 contributions of $1,000 or more were the most among the 12 states by far.

With that history as a backdrop, any proposal to increase contribution limits likely would become the most controversial element in the legislation and the biggest potential obstacle to its passage.

"I am not in favor of increasing contribution limits," said Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.

Johnson said he's also concerned about allowing the limits to apply to an entire election cycle because it would allow incumbents to pile up money during non-election years that could be used to intimidate would-be challengers.

"I hesitate to allow money to be collected early," said Johnson, R-Savannah. "I don't want to give any more of an advantage to incumbents. It's not fair."

Under the current system, which allows lawmakers to accept up to $1,000 per contributor during non-election years, Johnson's campaign took in $72,340 during 1999, according to a report filed with the Secretary of State's office. …