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Senate proposes easing limits on donations to legislative committees

A late change to the state budget proposed by Ohio Senate Republicans would allow corporations and unions to begin giving money directly to state legislative campaign committees, as long as they pay for operating costs and not direct political activity.

Ohio Senate Republican spokesman John McClelland did not return a message seeking comment, but previously told the Columbus Dispatch the change would allow the campaign committees to operate independently of political parties. Mike Dittoe, a spokesman for Ohio House Republicans, said he has not heard of anyone expressing opposition to the change from within his caucus.

“I don’t know that that extra chair at the conference table is going to make or break any specific legislative race across the state,” he said.

But critics say the change would weaken campaign finance law and give special interests another backdoor way to buy their way into influencing elections.

“Yes, it’s not paying for advertising and no, it’s not paying for yard signs, but it’s pretty hard to get elected if you don’t have a telephone, and it’s pretty hard to get folks elected from the caucus if you don’t have a roof over your head,” said Catherine Turcer, a policy analyst for Common Cause Ohio, a left-leaning government watchdog group.

Under current law, only state and county political parties can accept money directly from corporations and unions, as long it’s not used to pay for the construction, renovation or purchase of office facilities that are not used solely to directly influence elections for any individual candidate.

But the change, inserted into the senate version of the state budget earlier this month, would also allow unions and corporations to give to the state’s four legislative caucuses: the House Democratic Caucus Fund, the Ohio House Republican Organizational Committee, the Ohio Senate Democrats and the Republican Senate Campaign Committee. It would also broaden the limits of what the money could be used for to “general operating costs” of an office.

Unlike political contributions, the gifts would have no specific dollar limits, but couldn’t comprise more than 10 percent of the committee’s overall operating costs.

The amendment is one of dozens state lawmakers are considering as they reconcile competing versions of the state budget from the senate and Ohio House. The budget proposal will be sent to Ohio Gov. John Kasich for his signature by the end of this month.

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