Political independent expenditure rules under fire

Groups want more transparency on campaign financing

Mike Wiser
Published: December 9 2012 | 8:45 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 3:08 am in
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DES MOINES — Advocacy groups put more than $700,000 into mailings, media and organizing on behalf of Statehouse candidates in 2012 who, legally, had no control over what was said and whose opponents had no idea where the money came from.

The groups pushed same-sex and traditional marriage, education and tax reform, and changes to state rules governing credit unions. They spent what turned out to be a record amount of money on candidates under rules governing independent expenditures.

Even more was spent by groups hoping to influence the outcome of the Iowa Supreme Court retention vote.

Independent expenditures allow unlimited contributions from people and corporations to groups that can spend it for political purposes as long as they don’t coordinate with an official campaign. They also don’t have to disclose contributors. It’s one of the reasons critics sometimes call independent expenditures “dark money.”

Political Action Committees can coordinate with campaigns, and donors don’t have contribution limits, but corporations aren’t allowed to contribute to PACs. Donors who give more than $10 have to provide a name and address.

It’s the last point that has Megan Tooker, executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, concerned.

Her office will introduce legislation this session that requires disclosure of the names and addresses of contributors who donate more than $25 to an independent expenditure committee.

“It doesn’t seem fair that if you contribute to a PAC, you have to have disclosure, but if you make a contribution to an independent expenditure group, you don’t have to disclose,” Tooker said. “Citizens United told us that corporations can contribute to campaigns, but it didn’t define what the disclosure had to be. It kind of left that up to us to figure it out.”

Spending

On a national level, groups such as Priorities USA and Restore Our Future raised or spent millions on behalf of President Barack Obama, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and federal congressional seats.

A few national groups also made their presence known in Iowa legislative races.

Students First, the education reform group headed by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, spent $317,795 on legislative races. The America Votes Action Fund, headed by former directors of the Sierra Club, Emily’s List and Service Employees International Union, put $52,978 into legislative races.

Local groups were in the mix as well. The Iowa Credit Union League, for example, dropped $26,043 on legislative races. But most were playing catch-up to the Family Leader, the social conservative group that spent a combined $392,243 in independent expenditures on the judicial and legislative races in the state.

“We’re fine with whatever the Legislature does (on disclosure),” Family Leader Vice President Chuck Hurley said.

He said the Family Leader uses independent expenditures because it has proved to be “the most effective way to get our message out.” He said it allows the group to target its supporters with election information, regardless of who’s running for office.

A national push

Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics, said California’s disclosure law is a model she’d like to see other states follow.

The law, which was recently upheld in the case FPPC v. Americans for Responsible Leadership, requires ads paid for by independent expenditures to list the two highest contributors to the group if any contributor has given at least $50,000 or more.

It also requires that any mass mailing of 200 pieces or more must prominently include the name and address of the entity responsible for the mailer if made by a committee, corporation or person who has made donations of $10,000 or more in a year.

“There isn’t a problem with people wanting to keep their donations private to non-profit groups or give anonymously to causes,” Barber said. “It becomes a problem when the donation is being given on a question of public policy or a political campaign. People have a right to know who is paying for political advocacy.”

Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said he wouldn’t comment on any proposed legislation until he saw it in its final form. But, he said, “something will have to be done” about independent expenditures in political campaigns.

“I can’t point to any race where an independent expenditure made a difference on the state level,” he said. “I think, for sure, there were some that were affected on the federal level. I think when you see more of that on the state level, more people will take notice.”

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