A quick primer on the big numbers in Indiana state politics

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It’s been said that money is the mother’s milk of politics. In Indiana politics, the milk is abundant thanks to what critics say is one of the loosest regulatory systems in the nation.

According to a review of campaign finance data from 2000 through 2015, state-level political committees have taken in a total of $942 million in contributions. That’s nearly a billion dollars raised to run campaigns and influence election contests for the Indiana General Assembly, the governor’s office and other statewide positions such as state superintendent of public instruction.

There are some rules for who can contribute and how much, but Indiana rated a grade of F in an analysis of state campaign finance regulation by the Center for Public Integrity last year. Among other issues cited, the state gets poor marks for allowing unlimited contributions from individuals and political action committees (PACs) and for limits on corporate contributions that can be skirted with ease.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Indiana is one of only 12 states that doesn’t limit PAC or individual contributions. And 22 states actually prohibit corporate contributions.

Further issues include the lack of meaningful official oversight when it comes to campaign finance reports and error-riddled data that makes analyzing contributions and expenditures challenging at best.

Committees that raise and spend money on political causes in Indiana – whether they are candidate committees, political parties or political action committees – are required to file detailed reports of their fundraising and spending. The reports are submitted to the Indiana Election Division, which maintains a searchable online database and also makes annual files available for downloading by the public.

For the stories that follow, a class of investigative reporting students at the Indiana University Media School downloaded and analyzed those annual files, from 2000 – the first year the data went online – to 2015 – the most recent full year available. In all, the data include more than 1.2 million contribution records and nearly half a million spending records. The stories explore deficiencies in the state’s data, how corporations can get around contribution limits, the free hand given to political action committees, and campaign spending.

Other notable observations:

  • While individual contributions are unlimited under Indiana law, much of the action revolves around PACs. Jim Walton, son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, made the largest contribution – $1.9 million in 2012 to the American Federation for Children Action Fund, a conservative political action committee that advocates for school choice voucher programs. Both Walton and the action fund also provided heavy support to Tony Bennett, then-superintendent of public instruction.
  • National and out-of-state concerns (including Walton and the Federation for Children Action Fund) frequently show up in efforts to influence Indiana elections. The Republican Governors Association, based in Washington, D.C., was the largest contributor twice, with contributions of $725,000 to Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2008 and $400,000 to the Indiana Republican State Committee in 2010.
  • Well-funded candidates spend money to get themselves elected, but they often also spread their money around to other candidates. In 2007, for instance, the Committee to Elect Brian Bosma was the largest contributor, donating $300,000 to the House Republican State Committee, which works to the benefit of state GOP lawmakers.
  • Similarly, national and state party organizations frequently dole out money and resources to individual candidates or other organizations. In 2006, the Indiana Democratic Party provided more than $200,000 worth of in-kind services to Myron Sutton, a state legislative candidate. And the Democratic National Committee Services Corporation donated more than $400,000 to the Indiana Democratic State Central Committee in 2009.

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