COLUMBUS - Ohio dentists want limits on campaign contributions in the Ohio Constitution about as much as their patients want root canals.
In a move reminiscent of medical doctors in recent Ohio Supreme Court elections, dentists have opened their wallets to support Ohio First, the group fighting four proposed, election-related constitutional amendments on Tuesday's ballot.
While their total contributions of $187,350 represented just 8 percent of the $2.2 million raised by the mostly Republican opposition through Oct. 19, dentists, their practices, and their professional associations represented 120, or 71 percent, of the 170 contributors to Ohio First.
Dr. Michael Judy, a political independent from Toledo, rarely involves himself in politics. But he said he considers Issue 3, an amendment that mostly rolls back how much individuals and political action committees may contribute to campaigns, to be enough of a threat to the voice of dentists in Columbus that he gave $200 to the opposition.
"The Ohio Dental Association has been our voice in some of the most significant issues that have affected dentistry over the years," he said.
A reaction to legislation passed last year that increased to $10,000 the amount individuals and political action committees could give to candidates, Issue 3 would cap contributions at $2,000 while writing into the constitution revised limits that are usually lower than under the current law.
The chief exception is a new entity called a Small Donor PAC, which could pool contributions of no more than $50 from individuals and make a combined contribution of up to $20,000 to statewide candidates and $10,000 for legislative hopefuls. That's 10 times the amount a traditional PAC could give.
In campaign fund-raising letters, Ohio First has described the provision as "another huge power grab by labor unions."
Not so, said Tim Burga, Ohio AFL-CIO legislative director.
"In the 2002 statewide elections, labor accounted for somewhere around 3 percent [of contributions],'' he said. "The rest of the money was from big corporate entities, PACs, and the millionaires. We're a very small piece of the pie.
"Even if unions could use Small Donor PACs at a greater advantage, we would still be a fraction of what is spent,'' he said. "This is a smokescreen.''
Dentists do not agree.
"As a PAC, we have very few members compared to a big union like the United Auto Workers," said Dr. Matthew Lark, of Toledo, who contributed $100. "We would end up not winning any issues from a lobbying point of view."
Opponents of the ballot issues are playing on dentists' fears related to Medicaid, said Catherine Turcer, of Ohio Citizen Action.
"It's a very organized pattern of giving, kind of a panic reaction to something that's going to hit their pocketbook," she said about the contributions from dentists. The government watchdog group has endorsed the four issues placed on the ballot by the largely Democratic coalition Reform Ohio Now.
Ms. Turcer, however, said the dentists' contributions show that people believe money translates into clout in Columbus.
"Unions right now only do [a small part] of all the campaign contributions out there," she said. "Unions have become the bogeyman for Republicans. If unions had all the power, would all of state government be run by Republicans?"
Supporters of Issue 3 argue Small Donor PACs could also be used by small businesses, employers, neighborhood groups, or other special interests.
"If we were all playing on a level playing field, I wouldn't care if the contribution limits were $10,000 or $2,000," said David Owsiany, executive director of the 5,500-member dental association. "But here we have a professional association's PAC limited to $1,000 for legislative candidates and $2,000 for statewide candidates while a [Small Donor PAC] could give $10,000 and $20,000," he said.
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