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At least eight states have approved higher contribution limits this year and lawmakers in a ninth, Michigan, approved a measure Thursday that would double to $6,800 the amount of money a candidate for statewide office can accept from individuals.
In Wisconsin, meanwhile, a Senate panel will hold a public hearing Wednesday on a measure that would double contribution limits to $20,000 for candidates for governor, state Supreme Court seats and other statewide offices. The measure, which also would increase the amount of money state legislators can receive, passed the state's General Assembly in June.
"This is largely a reaction to the changed landscape after Citizens United where so-called outside organizations are able to accept unlimited donations from any source and in some cases can outraise and outspend the candidates and the parties by substantial amounts," said Larry Norton, a veteran Washington campaign-finance lawyer who served as general counsel of the Federal Election Commission.
"The motivation in lifting limits on contributions to candidates' committees and to parties is to help make them more competitive with the outside organizations," he said.
The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision struck down a long-standing ban on the use of corporate and union funds for independent political spending. That decision, along with separate federal ruling two months later, helped spur the creation of super PACs that can raise unlimited amounts to elect or defeat candidates.
Super PACs reported spending more than $609 million to influence last year's federal elections, according to a tally by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money. Experts say these mega PACs are likely to spread to more states next year when 36 governors' seats are in contention.
Thirty-eight states now allow the equivalent of super PACs to participate in their elections, and there is no legal obstacle to their creation in other states, said David Mitrani, an attorney who specializes in federal and state campaign-finance law.
Wyoming became the first state this year to increase contribution limits when Republican Gov. Matt Mead signed a bill in March increasing to $2,500 per election the amount of money gubernatorial and other statewide candidates could accept from individuals, up from $1,000. Donations to legislative candidates rose $1,500, an increase of $500.
Federal contribution limits are higher, allowing an individual to donate $2,600 for a primary or general election to a candidate for Congress or the White House.
Other states that have boosted limits include Connecticut, Maryland, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina and Arizona, where a court has put on hold the state's new law.
"It enables more speech by more people," David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, said of the increased limits. "We think that part of the spirit of the First Amendment is people being able to speak about what they believe in." Keating, a plaintiff in the federal case that made super PACs possible, would like states to discard limits entirely.
Edwin Bender, executive director of the non-partisan National Institute on Money in State Politics, said the higher caps make it easier for candidates to raise money, but they don't necessarily increase the donor pool.
In Missouri, state-level candidates raised nearly $2.3 million from small donors in the 2008 election, according to data analyzed by Bender's group. Four years later, after the state dropped all limits on the size of donations, small contributions shrank to $858,000.
"Higher limits give candidates with limited time the incentive to go after larger donors and ignore their base," Bender said.
Opponents of the measures say they also give a handful of givers a disproportionate influence over politicians and policy.
Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network said few donors are clamoring to give more. In the 2010 election, just 820 Michigan residents hit the limit on the donations they could give to gubernatorial candidates, he said.
Big political givers "already exert more influence than 99.99% of the state's population," he said. "They don't need to double their leverage."
The Michigan measure increases the frequency of disclosure reports for candidates, but bars extending campaign-finance reporting requirements to so-called "issue ads" that can criticize a political candidate but stop short of calling for the election or defeat of a candidate.
Michigan state Sen. Arlan Meekhof,a Republican who sponsored the bill, said the goal was to modernize a campaign-finance system that had not been updated since the late 1970s. Increasing the contribution limits and exempting issue ads from disclosure protect free speech, he said. Donors to issue-ad campaign could be "subject to harassment" for their advocacy of controversial issues.
"You shouldn't be attacked for having a personal view on an issue," he said.