Could a new St. Petersburg law help rein in super PACs?

A new campaign finance reform passed in St. Petersburg, Florida could end up having major implications for the fight to get big money out of politics.

On Thursday, the city council voted 6-2 in favor of a measure that would cap individual contributions to political action committees at $5,000. It also would bar companies that are more than 5 percent foreign-owned from making contributions.

The council acted in the midst of a mayoral race that’s by far the most expensive in the city’s history.

Lawyers for the city urged the council to reject the law, saying it violates the First Amendment as interpreted in the 2010 Citizens United ruling. In that decision, the Supreme Court held that the government can’t restrict independent political spending by corporations and unions. The ruling ushered in the era of super PACS, able to raise and spend unlimited amounts from corporations and mega-wealthy donors.

So doesn’t the St. Petersburg law clearly run afoul of Citizens United? Perhaps not.

The court has long recognized a distinction between spending and contributions, holding that limits on the latter pose fewer constitutional problems than limits on the former. The St. Petersburg law’s backers, including the Washington-based campaign finance reform group Free Speech for People, which helped lead the campaign for the measure, say that just because the government can’t limit spending by PACs, that doesn’t mean it can’t limit contributions to PACs.

The law will inevitably be challenged, and the case could go all the way to the Supreme Court. As the election law scholar Justin Levitt notes, the court has been “chipping away” at the spending/contributions distinction in recent years, so it’s probably a long-shot to think that the justices would uphold the law.

But if they did, the case would offer a clear path for other state and local governments to undo at least some of the damage of the Citizens United ruling, and begin limiting the outsize political influence of corporations and  the super wealthy.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

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