New campaign-finance law benefits incumbents

Gov. Gina M. Raimondo last month signed into law new campaign-finance rules that eliminate how much an individual can give to political candidates in aggregate.

Rhode Islanders still cannot contribute more than $1,000 to any individual candidate during the calendar year, but before this year individuals technically couldn’t contribute more than $10,000 in aggregate to multiple candidates.

The new law brings the state in step with a 2014 Supreme Court decision that struck down aggregate limits at the federal level.

In Rhode Island, the House speaker and other Statehouse leaders whose positions are dependent on political support from other elected officials are among those who stand to benefit most from the change.

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“The speaker of the House is often one of those people who could raise a lot of money, and to maintain their coalition they could make multiple donations,” said John Marion, executive director of government-watchdog Common Cause Rhode Island.

House speakers have habitually butted up against the $10,000 aggregate limit in years past, according to campaign-finance data available through the R.I. Board of Elections.

That includes current House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello.

In August 2015, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, the Board of Elections issued an advisory opinion saying it would no longer enforce the $10,000 aggregate limit.

Mattiello subsequently exceeded the $10,000 limit, totaling $13,300 in 2015.

New Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, the longest-tenured Senate member, has also taken advantage of the change.

In 2016, he contributed $13,225 to political candidates. So far this year, the North Providence Democrat has given $9,575.

Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, was chosen in January by House colleagues to serve another two-year term as speaker after narrowly winning re-election last year following a count of absentee ballots. He has contributed $400 to political candidates in 2017.

Mattiello and Ruggerio at the end of the regular legislative session locked horns in a highly publicized battle over a car-tax-relief program championed by the former. The recently ended dispute reaffirmed the powerful political positions they each hold but also left Rhode Island without a fiscal 2018 tax-and-spending plan throughout July.

The trend toward increased aggregate giving concerns Wendy Schiller, chair of political science at Brown University. She said it will strengthen the position of political incumbents.

“You worry about a democracy when people elected to office never have a challenger, and this will only make it worse,” she said. “Of course, people could now also contribute more to challengers, but we know that just doesn’t happen.”

Eli Sherman is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Sherman@PBN.com, or follow him on Twitter @Eli_Sherman.