N.H. Bill Pitches Nonprofit Political Spending Disclosure

May 9, 2012; Source: Union Leader

If there is anything that can bring nonprofits of the left and right together around a shared concern and position, it is the efforts of campaign finance reformers to get political nonprofits to reveal information about their donors and how much they contribute.

A bill to be voted on in the New Hampshire State Senate would require expanded reporting by 501(c)(4), 501(c)(5), and 501(c)(6) organizations engaged in spending money on state and national political races. HB 1704 is modeled on a bill that was enacted in nearby Maine and upheld in a decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

The legislation would treat these 501(c) nonprofits like party and candidates’ committees if they raise or spend more than $2,500 “in support of a candidate, measure, or political party.” According to the Union-Leader, the “reports must include the name and address of donors and the amount of their donations, along with the amount and a description of the group’s expenditures.” To achieve something close to real-time monitoring, these groups would have to report expenditures of more than $2,500 within 24 hours.

The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union has objected to some provisions of the bill, including required disclosure of expenditures for “distribution of information critical of a member of the general court who has not filed for office,” which New Hampshire ACLU director Claire Ebel called a “direct violation of the First Amendment right to anonymous speech about non-candidates who are public people.” The conservative Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy joined in criticizing this provision because “it would allow expenditures for material praising incumbents to go unreported.” Ebel expressed concerns about the possibility that the bill’s disclosure provisions might “stifle the ability of advocacy groups…to communicate about issues.”

That problematic provision is easily remedied, but one might guess that the opposition has deeper reservations about the notion of disclosure of donors. The Coalition for Open Democracy, counting the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Citizens Alliance as members, is the major backer of the bill. In response to Ebel, Olivia Zink of the Coalition contended, “This does not squash speech at all…It lets us know who is speaking.”—Rick Cohen