What if Idaho lifted contribution limits?

An interim legislative committee focused on campaign finance reform in Idaho unanimously rejected a proposal to lift contribution caps last month. But what would happen if Idaho did lift those caps?

“There’s been a lot of talk about what would happen if we removed contribution limits,” said J.T. Stepleton, a researcher with the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics.

A series of analyses by Stepleton suggests that if Idaho repealed contribution caps, as Missouri did in 2008, it likely would mean more money for incumbents and that a relatively small number of mega-donors, from utilities to industry groups to unions, would gain greater dominance in the financing of politics.

Focusing on Idaho, Stepleton examined the campaign finance reports of every candidate for statewide office or the Legislature between 2010 and 2016.

Of the approximately 32,000 donors recorded during that time, only 460 (1.4 percent) gave the maximum contribution of $1,000 for a legislative candidate, or $5,000 for a statewide candidate. Only 92 (0.3 percent) gave max contributions to more than one candidate.

“In many cases, we’ve found it tends to be a very small number,” Stepleton said in an interview.

The top of the list of max donors in Idaho is dominated by business interests, though one public sector union is also found there. The lead max donor was the Idaho Power Company, which maxed out 41 times. Micron Technology maxed out 38 times; the Idaho Education Association, 31 times; the Idaho Farm Bureau, 30 times; and the Idaho Association of Realtors, 29 times.

Of those who maxed out more than once, 75 percent were businesses, trade associations, unions or groups of some kind, while the remainder were individuals.

One fairly consistent finding among the states Stepleton has examined is that big donors skew toward incumbents, offering them an advantage.

“Incumbents tend to be more financially equipped than challengers are,” Stepleton said in an interview.

The incumbency advantage was most prominent in the gubernatorial field, where max contributors gave Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter nearly $1.2 million, compared to less than $280,000 for his challengers.

Stepleton’s analysis found that Idaho incumbents are advantaged by max contributors across the board, not only in the gubernatorial field. In Idaho House races over the same period, max donors gave about $350,000 to incumbents, compared to $220,000 for challengers and $210,000 for candidates seeking open seats. In the Senate, it was $260,000 for incumbents compared to $71,000 for challengers and $104,000 for open seat candidates. In other statewide offices, it was $100,000 for incumbents compared to $50,000 for challengers and $85,000 for open seat candidates.

Stepleton said Missouri’s 2008 decision to lift contribution caps — until Missouri voters reinstated them in a referendum last year that resulted in a constitutional amendment — offers a glimpse of what happens when caps are lifted.

There, lifting contribution caps appears to have served as a disincentive to challengers, leading to a “surge of candidates running unopposed,” Stepleton wrote.

In the period between 2002 and 2006, when caps were in place, just over a quarter of legislative races there were uncontested. In the period between 2010 and 2014, after caps were lifted, 43 percent of races were uncontested.

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.