Two Fort Wayne City Council members have proposed a city ordinance limiting corporate campaign contributions in local elections, leaving experts with questions about enforcement and legality.
In an op-ed column published in today's Journal Gazette, Councilmen Jason Arp, R-4th, and John Crawford, R-at large, make the case for limiting aggregate campaign contributions from corporations, owners, employees or employee spouses to $2,000 a year for a total of $8,000 in a four-year period. Any company that exceeds that total would be prohibited from seeking city contracts.
“The Indiana state campaign law limitations on corporate contributions is $2,000 apportioned in any manner along all candidates for county, local and school board offices,” the column states. “There is however no contribution limit on the amount a corporation officer, spouse of an owner, or employees of any corporation officer, spouse of an owner, or employees of any corporation or other business entity seeking professional service contract awards.”
According to the councilmen, this loophole results in contributions in the tens of thousands of dollars from “multiple contributions from multiple people from a business entity” over a four-year election cycle. However, Arp and Crawford acknowledge there is no proof those donations directly influence the awarding of contracts in Fort Wayne. It's the appearance of impropriety that has the councilmen concerned.
“It strains credulity to think that they don't believe they are receiving greater access or some other advantage from making these campaign contributions,” the column states.
Mayor Tom Henry's campaign finance reports from the 2015 election show contributions from engineering firms in Fort Wayne and elsewhere.
In 2015, Henry's campaign received $2,000 donations from engineering firms CH2M Hill, Arcadis U.S. Inc., DLZ Indiana and DLZ Industrial. CH2M Hill is headquartered in Englewood, Colorado, but has an office in Fort Wayne. Arcadis has headquarters in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, and also has offices in Fort Wayne.
Additionally, Wessler Engineering, a firm with offices in Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, contributed $5,000 to Henry's campaign in January 2015. Fort Wayne-based GAI Consultants gave $7,500 in January 2015 and $2,500 in October that same year.
Former Republican City Councilman Mitch Harper, who ran against Henry in 2015, reported contributions from OmniSource, Steel Dynamics, Rowe Industries, New Venture Development Corp. and Lebamoff Enterprises Inc. None of those contributions exceeded the $2,000 limit and the firms appear to be locally owned.
Arp and Crawford's proposal appears to be less restrictive than one authored in 2011 by Republican State Sen. Liz Brown while she was a member of the Fort Wayne City Council. That ordinance would have prohibited a company, company owner, company owner spouse, company subcontractor, subcontractor owner or subcontractor owner spouse from doing business with the city if that person made political donations to city candidates or elected officials the year before.
At that time, Dale Simmons and Leslie Barnes, co-counsels for the state election division, published an opinion stating the proposal did not comply with state law. In an interview Wednesday, Simmons said without having seen the new ordinance, it appears the same issues exist as with the 2011 proposal.
“There's a home rule statute and the statute essentially says you can't pass your own election rules,” Simmons said. “To be a little bit more fair, there may be a little better argument with sort of pay-to-play ordinances, but we didn't draw a distinction between that and any other kind of election regulation.”
In an interview Wednesday, Crawford said his and Arp's proposal is different from the 2011 ordinance, which never made it to the table for discussion. Crawford said the current proposal simply closes a loophole that allows for large amounts of corporate political donations over a single election cycle.
“Our ordinance does not limit what anybody can do,” Crawford said. “They can give as much money as they want, but if they go over the state limit corporations can give, then they wouldn't be allowed to compete for contracts.”
A major question with this proposal is how the city will enforce it, said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW.
“Who is going to do the policing,” Downs said. “Election boards are only complaint-driven and they lack the resources to do significant investigation.”
Beth Dlug, Allen County's director of elections, agreed.
“We don't have the manpower to look at everyone's campaign finance reports and determine whether they have filled them out accurately,” Dlug said. “Contributions and expenditures are not audited unless someone would file a complaint.”
Despite concerns with legality and enforcement, Downs said Arp and Crawford's proposal is interesting.
“In this case, the pitch is the appearance of pay-to-play,” Downs said. “Real or not, that's something that at this moment in time resonates with people. I don't know that it will still resonate with people two, four or six years from now. It certainly didn't resonate 10 years ago.”