February 14, 2018; Arizona Daily Sun
Just when you thought that concealing donor monies in nonprofit guise could not get stealthier, in steps the Arizona legislature to be sure that it does. Beginning with the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission that essentially gave corporations the same status as citizens when it comes to political speech, the process of funding elections and elective offices anonymously through nonprofit PACs (political action committees) has taken hold and grown. These PACs are found on both sides of the aisle. Now, the Arizona legislature is looking to put legislation in place to protect donor anonymity, in advance of any prospective actions at the local level by cities or communities to have open disclosure of just who these “dark money” donors are.
This past week, the Arizona House, controlled by Republicans, voted to stop any efforts by local municipalities to seek information and then tell the public whose money was going into local elections through nonprofit groups.
On a 33-25 margin the Republican-controlled House voted to prohibit local governments from requiring organizations declared to be tax-exempt by the Internal Revenue Service from registering as political action committees, even if they are putting money into political races.
More to the point, it would preclude any requirement that these so-called “dark money” groups identify donors. And it would bar local governments from auditing the books of these groups or requiring them to respond to subpoenas, even if there were allegations that they were violating campaign finance laws.
With this on the books, the bill now moves to the Republican-controlled Senate.
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The question of why this was done seems appropriate to ask, since no local Arizona communities have passed laws or ordinances for this kind of disclosure.
Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, who has championed this measure, conceded that no Arizona community has so far sought to impose such reporting requirements on nonprofit organizations. Instead, he argued, it was designed to get out in front of the issue before some community could approve measures like one that exists in Santa Fe, N.M.
But the legislation does not exist in a vacuum. It comes as voters in Tempe are set to vote next month on a proposal to require that any group spending at least $1,000 on independent campaigns disclose their donors. HB 2153, if signed into law, would preempt such an ordinance.
At the heart of the debate is a contention by Leach and other supporters that requiring disclosure could result in individual donors being harassed.
Democrats and a very limited number of Republicans point to the flaws in the measure. Rep. Ken Clark (D-Phoenix) argues that in the face of donors spending millions of dollars to influence elections, the nonprofit status of the organizations that receive that money—on both the right and left—is meaningless. “It’s about the money that that organization, many organizations can spend to intimidate lawmakers at all levels,’’ he argued.
Is it the right of individual donors, no matter what size their donations, and of business groups to anonymously influence elections? If this bill passes the Senate and is signed into law, then the state of Arizona says it is. But those who argue that more light needs to be shed on dark money have their points, too. Can a lawsuit be far behind?—Carole Levine