While Republicans in Congress continue to smother proposals for campaign finance transparency, statehouse Republicans from Maine to Montana are moving in the opposite direction. Some Republican state legislators are pushing back against the free-spending super-PACs and secretive independent groups that have been transforming U.S. politics into a proxy war among the super rich.
“When somebody’s hiding in the shadows and gut-shoots you, you have a right to know who’s taking a shot at you,” Montana state Sen. Duane Ankney told the Montana Standard earlier this year.
Ankney sponsored a bill requiring disclosure of donors to any group that advocates within 60 days of an election — regardless of their tax status. The proposal is aimed at “social welfare” groups and trade associations that are organized specifically to fund political activities while avoiding campaign finance disclosure rules. Ankney’s measure was signed into law last month by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who had been the target of attacks from a dark-money group.
Montana is one of a dozen states with Republican-controlled legislatures that are advancing or debating measures to force politically-active nonprofit groups to become more transparent. The proposals range from imposing disclosure mandates to urging Congress to advance a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allowed individuals, corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums on politics. In the wake of the ruling, the vast majority of unregulated money has been contributed to super-PACs or nonprofit groups.
In Maine, Republican state Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta is backing a ballot initiative strengthening the state’s public financing system for campaigns and requiring outside groups to disclose their top three donors in paid communications that urge support for or opposition to a candidate.
Also in Maine, Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, is offering a bill that would require political action committees that transfer money between one another to pay a 25 percent fee to the state. In addition to reducing PAC spending in elections in Maine, Thibodeau’s bill is meant to increase transparency and includes a provision that would require the disclosure of a PAC’s top donor on any advertising done by the PAC.
“A lot of money is shuffled around and I think this excessive transferring allows PACs, unions, corporations and other major donors to disguise their activity,” Thibodeau said last month. “We just emerged from one of the nastiest campaign seasons on record, where political candidates were being viciously attacked in campaign ads, in some cases being accused of voting to poison children.”
Republican state Sen. Rob Schaaf of Missouri backs an initiative to impose limits on campaign contributions and gifts from lobbyists. Schaaf, a doctor who was the target of attacks from the hospital industry after he helped block an expansion of Medicaid in the state and tangled with the industry on other issues, is also calling for greater disclosure of contributions to independent political groups.
“People are buying power,” Schaaf said. “If people really knew what went on, they would be incensed, and it’s all legal.”
So far, Republican advocates of transparency are not faring much better than their Democratic counterparts. In New Hampshire, advocates for overturning Citizens United have seen their call for a constitutional amendment stall in the state House, even though the chamber previously passed a version of it twice. A Washington State proposal requiring disclosure by dark money groups died in the legislature after business groups opposed it and some Republicans turned against it.
Much of the new activism on campaign finance emerged from primary fights between the Republican business and tea party wings. State Rep. Frank Garner, a Republican freshman in the Montana House, faced campaign attacks funded by Americans for Prosperity after he refused to sign a pledge not to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. AFP, which was founded by billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch, sent direct mail to voters in which Garner’s face morphed into President Barack Obama’s.
Garner won the primary with 72 percent of the vote, and went on to win the general election handily. “AFP has a right to its opinion,” Garner said. But if groups such as AFP want to influence elections, “you are going to have to disclose who is writing the check.”
None of the state proposals apply to federal campaigns. In Congress, proposed federal reforms have met solid Republican resistance. In 2012, more than $250 million was spent on the presidential and congressional campaigns by groups that didn’t disclose their donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Even greater anonymous spending is expected in the 2016 race.
When I asked state Republican elected officials about their differences on the issue with Republican legislators in Washington, most politely demurred. However, Montana’s Ankney, a former coal miner, provided a blunt reply. “I pass bills,” he said, “and they don’t.”
BDN State House Bureau Chief Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.