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N.D. LEGISLATURE: Republicans respond to Dems' wins

BISMARCK - North Dakota Democrats have six more senators and six more House members at the Capitol this session than last, thanks in part to heavy spending in legislative campaigns.

BISMARCK - North Dakota Democrats have six more senators and six more House members at the Capitol this session than last, thanks in part to heavy spending in legislative campaigns.

But Republicans don't like the source of much of the money that helped trim their super-majorities, so they've introduced two campaign finance bills, aimed at the all-Democratic congressional delegation's PACs and a nonprofit group.

House Bill 1297 would enact the first and only cap on campaign donations in the state. It says a federally registered campaign committee - think Sen. Kent Conrad's "DAK PAC," Sen. Byron Dorgan's Great Plains Leadership Fund and Rep. Earl Pomeroy's NoDak PAC - can't make contributions of more than $3,000 to legislative candidates. The same limit would apply to a state political party.

The prime sponsor is Rep. Rae Ann Kelsch, R-Mandan, with five other Republican co-sponsors. Four of the sponsors are up for election in 2008. "I thought it looked like good campaign reform," she said.

Large candidate donations

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North Dakota Republicans had issued outraged press releases in the final weeks of the campaign last fall about tens of thousands of dollars pouring into statewide and legislative races in the final weeks, pointing to large donations received by candidates from the congressional PACs and large donations the state Democratic-NPL Party was getting from out-of-state donors.

Some of the donations from 2006 that would have been affected by HB 1297 if it had been law at the time: The Democratic-NPL gave $4,000 to former Sen. Jim Yockim of Williston in his unsuccessful bid to return to the Legislature, and $4,000 to Cornelius Kooren of Dickinson, who was trying to unseat Rep. Frank Wald, R-Dickinson. Kooren also got $4,500 from DAK PAC and $4,000 from the Dem-NPL Coordinated Campaign Fund.

DAK PAC also gave $4,000 to Sen. Tracy Potter, D-Bismarck, who defeated Republican Margaret Sitte by 50 votes. DAK PAC also gave $3,250 to unsuccessful House candidate Michael Frohlich of Bismarck.

The bill does not limit donations from a source Republicans used last year to give large sums to their legislative candidates - caucuses. The Senate Republican Caucus gave $4,000 to Blake Krabseth, an unsuccessful Senate candidate in Minot; $5,251 to David Humphrey of Fargo, who ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Carolyn Nelson, and $3,500 to Preston Meier, who ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford.

It also does not restrict a type of legislative race funding that both parties used extensively - donations made to district parties who then spent it on behalf of their legislative tickets.

The Senate Democratic-NPL floor leader, Dave O'Connell, D-Lansford, reacted with disgust to HB 1267, saying Republicans couldn't stand "when one side gets something going for them," so they are taking action to remove that advantage.

A second billA second Republican bill, House Bill 1499, says nonprofit organizations known as "527s" - named for the second of IRS tax code under which they file - will have to join other political committees in the state in publicly declaring the source of its contributions and how its funds are expended.

Rep. Rick Berg, R-Fargo, said he filed the bill because a group that ran radio commercials against him and his running mates last fall is a 527 organization and under current law does not have to report where it gets or spends its money.

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Two of Berg's running mates, Rep. LeRoy Bernstein and Sen. John Syverson, were defeated by Democrats. The 527, " NDPeople.org , ran ads criticizing his backing of a bill in the 2005 session that would have given tax breaks to oil companies. The House passed the bill, but the Senate voted it down.

Berg said he consulted with campaign finance champion Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., last fall about 527 groups that operate outside campaign finance laws when McCain was in Moorhead campaigning for Gov. Tim Pawlenty. McCain is "very opposed to what the 527s are doing," Berg said.

Berg said 10 to 15 other states have started to require reporting by 527s. The whole point, he said.

Berg said both bills merely shed light on who is getting and giving money. If a large out-of-state donor wants to personally give more than $3,000 directly to a legislative candidate that is still allowed. The new law just prevents large donations from being funneled through federal PACs or state parties, where the exact route from donor to recipient is not clear.

Both House Bill 1297 and House Bill 1499 had hearings Monday in the House Judiciary Committee. No one testified against them and the committee did not take action yet.

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