Campaign Finance Reform Targeting National Organizations Worries Local Groups
Legislation under review in the General Assembly targets national organizations but has local groups fearing their speech (and donations) will be chilled.
Providence (Ocean State Current) – The political stars appear out of line when RI Right to Life stands with the ACLU against a campaign finance reform proposal from Common Cause. Yet, there were their respective heads, Barth Bracy and Stephen Brown, sitting next to John Marion, telling the Judiciary Committee of the Rhode Island Senate that legislation he had ushered into being would be "extraordinary."
On the table was Senate bill 2569, companion of House bill 7859, "disclosure of political contributions and expenditures." The leaders of both chambers, as well as Governor Lincoln Chafee, had been so anxious to jump on this bandwagon that they held a joint press conference weeks earlier, even before the legislation had been finalized.
The bill would require "any person, business entity or political action committee" advocating for or against a candidate or referendum to report its "independent expenditures or electioneering communications" spending to the Board of Elections if it amounts to $250 or more. In addition to describing the expenditures, the reports would have to identify all donors who've given the group $1,000 or more within the previous 12 months. In existing campaign finance law, donor identification typically includes his or her address and employer.
The legislation further requires any communication — in printed, audio, video, or digital form — made in the course of a campaign to provide the name of the organization and its chief officer or treasurer, its address, and a statement of agreement and independence. Non-profit organizations would also have to list their top 5 donors from the past 12 months, regardless of the total amounts that they contributed.
Bracy described a recent incident at the State House when "peaceful pro-lifers" were "bullied and harassed, shouted down and pelted with condoms." If that is the price of supporting a particular cause "in the very rotunda of the State House," he suggested, it would chill participation to "ask them to post their names in newspapers so that people who disagree with them might take some form of retribution."
In defense of that provision, which Common Cause "firmly stands behind," Marion focused on the right of an organization's members and shareholders to know what campaign activities are being done on their behalf. He referred to a 2010 controversy in Minnesota involving Target Brands, Inc., when the company's $150,000 in campaign donations resulted in "1,800 protests in Target stores within a matter of days."
Public debate about the legislation has repeatedly cited the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in the case of Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission. According to the legislative findings sections of S2569 and H7859, Citizens United allowed "unlimited political spending by outside groups via independent expenditures," which are "often extremely difficult or impossible to trace."
At the press conference and the Senate hearing on the bills, participants asked whether there has been any evidence that the "super PACs" that have emerged at the federal level are active in Rhode Island. Proponents responded that the legislation has been put forward in anticipation of future campaigns. Speaker of the House Gordon Fox told assembled members of the media at the conference, "This is a way of dealing with what has grown into an enormous problem that has tilted the scale."