PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ A grand is not worth what it used to be when it comes to campaign contributions.
While $1,000 is the legal limit for individuals and Political Action Committees (PACs) to contribute to a candidate in a given year, the 1992 law does not stop anyone from forming more than one PAC, with each contributing the legal limit.
Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion calls it a “legal loophole” that he said violates the spirit of the law.
“The limits were put in place because of problems with corruption,” Marion said. “If enough money is given to a candidate, it could influence their decision with the public’s purse.”
Some also argue $1,000 buys less in a campaign than it did back when the late Bruce Sundlun was governor, and an inflation calculator backs that up, showing $1,000 is now worth less than $600.
The Cranston Firefighters’ Union has two PACs, but their president Scott Robinson said the limits set 28 years ago are outdated when it comes to the cost of campaigns in 2020.
Robinson also emphasizes contributing $2,000 to a candidate is not going to sway an election or buy much influence.
“A mayoral campaign might cost $100,000. $2,000 is two percent of that?” Robinson said. “You think a candidate is going to sit there and say, ‘Scott and the firefighters union gave me $2000 dollars. I have to do what they want me to do.’ There’s no way.”
Board of Elections (BOE) records show there are about 20 groups of PACS with similar names and the same address, but BOE Director of Campaign Finance Richard Thornton said 13 of those, “appear to be separate organizations or have separate memberships.”
According to BOE records, at least seven organizations, including four run by firefighters, have multiple PACs run by the same people: The Warwick, Cranston and Providence firefighters’ unions, the R.I. State Association of Firefighters, the New England Regional Council of Carpenters and the law firm Hinckley, Allen and Snyder.
Providence firefighters have three PACs, with two of them contributing $2,000 each to a half dozen candidates 2018. Union President Derek Silva has yet to respond to a request for comment.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello received $2,000 dollars last year from the Cranston firefighters’ union’s PACs, which also gave $2,000 that year to Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and $2,000 in 2020 to Cranston Mayoral candidate Ken Hopkins.
One of the key state representatives behind the 1992 law discussed the goal of the measure but asked not to be identified.
He agreed with Marion’s assertion that giving more than $1,000 a year to a candidate violates the spirit of the law.
“One organization using multiple PACs to contribute more than $1,000 to a candidate certainly defeats the purpose of the limits,” they said.
They also agreed with the argument that inflation has no doubt cut into the value of a grand, and suggested the General Assembly should look into changing the limits and tightening the language to stop single organizations from operating multiple PACs.
Before anyone offers the refrain, “That’s Rhode Island for you,” Marion points out this is not unique to the state.
“It’s a relatively common loophole that’s not always easy to close,” Marion said. “Much like the tax code there are a lot of ways to get around the rules that are put in place.”
In Robinson’s opinion, the four firefighters’ organizations with multiple PACs are an indication how the members of his profession “recognize laws impact public safety and our safety.”
He also suggested opponents of their chosen candidates should be more concerned about how firefighters often vote in blocks.
“That’s what they should worry about, not how much our PAC gave,” Robinson said. “We’re willing to run into burning buildings for strangers. What do you think we’re going to do when it’s about us getting home safe to our families? We vote. We get our families to vote. We get our neighbors to vote.”
Nonetheless, Marion does think the loophole should be closed even if it does not appear to be on the current agenda at the statehouse.
Spokesmen for Ruggerio and Mattiello have yet to return a request for comment.
Robinson said he would prefer one PAC instead of two but not with the current $25,000 annual limit for how much a PAC can raise and contribute.
He also insists the bigger issue is “the unlimited amount of money corporations can give” to candidates.
Marion said that is a reference to corporations offering “independent expenditures” to campaigns.
According to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), “an independent expenditure is an expenditure for a communication, such as a website, newspaper, TV or direct mail advertisement.”
They are unlimited but unions are also allowed to pay for independent expenditures, according to the FEC. When it comes to PACs, corporations are required to follow the same limits set by the law as everyone else, Marion said.