Politics

A state lawmaker has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to strike down the state’s limits on contributions to political campaigns.

Kentucky law forbids individuals from donating more than $1,000 per election to a candidate. State Sen. John Schickel, a Republican from Union, said the state’s current campaign finance laws favor candidates who already have connections to political organizations.

“It makes the system so complex that the people that have the money to hire lawyers and set up these things have a huge advantage, and that’s not right,” he said. “Everyone should be on a level playing field.”

Schickel argues that limits on campaign contributions amount to a restriction of free speech.

He’s also suing to strike down other ethics provisions, including a law that prevents lobbyists from donating to legislative candidates, another that prevents employers of lobbyists from donating to lawmakers’ campaigns during the legislative session, and another that bars lawmakers from receiving gifts from lobbyists.

“The practical implication of that is I can’t interact with my constituents,” Schickel said.

Schickel is joined in the lawsuit by two western Kentucky politicians: David Watson, a Republican state House candidate from Benton, and Ken Moellman, a candidate for judge executive in Pendleton County.

They’ve named several officials from the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance and the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission in the suit.

There are several other challenges to campaign donation limits pending in courts across the country. Joshua Douglas, an election law professor for the University of Kentucky, said that the challenge to contribution limits “is the next big issue” for those opposed to campaign finance regulations.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has been extremely skeptical of any restrictions on spending money,” he said.

Douglas said since John Roberts became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the court has upheld only one campaign finance regulation — a Florida law that forbids judicial candidates from soliciting donations directly.

Otherwise, the court has ruled in favor of loosening restrictions on political giving. In its landmark 2010 decision in Citizens United, the court struck down a law that restricted independent political spending by corporations, saying it was a violation of free speech rights. And last year, the court struck down a law that limited the total amount of money an individual could give to all candidates.

Still, longstanding legal precedent from a 1976 Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo states that contribution limitations are permitted as long as candidates can still effectively raise funds. Because of that, Douglas said Schickel’s case would likely fail at the district court level, although he might be aiming for success on appeal.

“Certainly they’ll lose on the striking down contribution limitations entirely, because there’s binding precedent that says contribution limitations are constitutional so long as they’re not too low,” Douglas said.

“But they’re going to make that argument so they can preserve it and tee it up for eventual Supreme Court review, to see if the Supreme Court will reverse its prior decision and say that any contribution limitations are unconstitutional,” he said.

In the final hours of this year’s legislative session, the Senate approved a bill that would have raised the individual donation limit to $2,000 per candidate, per election. The bill failed in the House, where members spoke out against the image of raising the donation limit without taking more public comment.

Sen. Schickel said he’s turned to the court system because raising the contribution is so politically sensitive, legislators don’t want to deal with it.

“If it has the word ‘ethics’ in it or if it has the word ‘campaign finance’ in it, people are so afraid that the liberal media is going to skew it that there’s something funny going on,” Schickel said.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.