After a second public hearing where citizens again strongly opposed the amount as way too high, Columbus City Council unanimously enacted a $12,707.79 annual limit on contributions to candidates for city offices. Council member Michael Stinziano, a lame duck who leaves office Feb. 22, 2019, was the only member at the hearing.
Citizens speaking there denounced the limit as a sham benefiting incumbent officeholders and big-money donors under the guise of protecting the public. Speakers generally supported an amount between $250 and $3000, which is more in line with the limits in comparable cities.
They said a lower limit would motivate candidates to seek support from and represent regular citizens instead of a small group of wealthy donors.
An ineffective limit favoring incumbents and easily avoided
Council obtained the $12,707.79 figure from Ohio law limiting amounts given to candidates for statewide offices. But Mia Lewis of the good-government group Common Cause Ohio showed that Columbus is actually instituting a higher limit. State law allows the maximum contribution once per election cycle whereas Columbus permits it yearly. Suggesting a $2700 limit as used in federal elections, Lewis said Columbus’ limit is out of proportion to the city’s size and is so high “it’s effectively not a limit.”
Buckeye Lake resident Tyler Shipley, who was last year’s Democratic general-election opponent to now-House Speaker Larry Householder, traveled to Columbus to object to relying on the state’s figure. He said the $12,707.79 amount accepted by Statehouse Republicans is “absurd,” being much higher than the limit for presidential campaigns. He maintained that using the excessive state limit signals approval of it, sets a bad example for other cities and is a recipe for oligarchy and corruption.
Several speakers excoriated a gaping hole in the limit: it doesn’t apply to political parties. Because parties are known to route contributions from donors to candidates with impunity, big-money interests can easily exploit this tactic to evade the limit.
Kayla Merchant of the progressive Democratic group Yes We Can Columbus identified how applying the limit yearly, instead of for a term of office, gives incumbents a large financial advantage. Incumbents can raise the maximum amount each year of their term, but challengers likely won’t start raising funds until about the time they file to run in the election year.
Community activist and city council hopeful Joe Motil complained that the limit doesn’t apply to in-kind contributions. He cited examples of Council President Shannon Hardin providing in-kind contributions worth tens of thousands of dollars to the campaigns of other council candidates in 2017. The practice obviously raises questions of indebtedness to the council president and his large donors.
The public’s overwhelming sentiment at the hearing was that multiple problems with the limit render it useless for reducing the wealthy’s excessive influence on Columbus elections.
Citizens connect the dots between large contributions and harmful city policies
Speakers foresaw continuing harms to the public caused by the failure to rein in large contributors. Doug Todd said big money “effectively makes Columbus officeholders employees of the wealthy funders and not elected representatives.”
Some blamed the city’s affordable housing crisis on developers’ clout bought by campaign donations. Kevin Truitt asserted: “There are solutions to this crisis. But I believe corporate developers have too much power over the city’s policies and stand in the way of progress.”
OSU medical students Caitlin Coombes and Lindsay Mlynarek explained that because Columbus’ policies are tilted to favor the rich, city government underfunds a variety of services vital to the public’s health. Coombes said “local policy is integral to raising healthy citizens,” and “a limit of nearly $13,000 is so high as to allow city council to be bought and sold by big donors, and many of our citizens – my patients – suffer for it.”
Amy Harkins recounted that in working in the Columbus schools for 13 years, she’s witnessed how hard the system has been hit by disinvestment. While city officials claimed for years that money isn’t available for needed improvements, she’s seen them regularly give large tax abatements to rich campaign donors. She said the high contribution limit means ongoing insufficient funds for schools and social services because “the voices of the working families will be drowned out by the wealthy few.”
Speakers also viewed the influence of big money as preventing the city from adequately addressing other problems including poverty, homelessness, transportation and child care.
Wealthy elites win again
In the end, none of the citizens’ arguments mattered. By enacting the $12,707.79 limit, council showed that not one member represents the compelling voices at the public hearings. Sandy Bolzenius of Move to Amend, which seeks a constitutional amendment on campaign finance, described the amount as “downright ridiculous” and “obviously conjured by an elite group.”
As usual at Columbus City Hall, the ridiculous wants of a moneyed elite were served and other citizens and their problems ignored.