Battle over dark money takes many forms on state level
A bill pending in the N.J. legislature would require disclosure of donor names.
New Jersey voters going to the polls in November won't know who contributed the millions that the Committee for Our Children's Future spent to tout the record of Gov. Chris Christie, or who really picked up the tab for One New Jersey's barrage of ads attacking him. But a bill pending in the New Jersey legislature would require such groups, known as 501(c)4 nonprofit organizations after the section of the tax code that establishes them, to disclose their donors when they attempt to influence elections.
It's one of dozens of laws pending or passed in state legislatures found using Open States' new .csv download function (see below for how-to tips and methodology). More than three years after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision ruled it unconstitutional to bar corporate entities, including nonprofits and labor unions, from freely spending to influence elections, many state legislators are still coming to grips with the ruling and its ramifications for state elections.
The Sunlight Foundation's survey, which analyzed bills amending campaign finance laws that were introduced in 2012 and 2013, found that while few bills have made it into law so far, the legislation that has been introduced--like the New Jersey measure requiring politically active nonprofits to disclose their donors--suggests widespread interest in improving transparency at the state level.
We queried all bills in the Open States database, which tracks legislation from all 50 states, and compiled it in an abbreviated table below and more complete version here. We noted whether the legislation would be better, worse or neutral for disclosure efforts and provided short summaries.
Responses to Citizens United have run the gamut from increasing individual contribution limits (which supporters see as a way of counterbalancing big donations for outside spending), closing loopholes or creating public campaign financing systems. Our summary is below. The findings are only as good as our search terms and it's possible that we've missed some measures that don't use obvious ones. Know about a bill that should be on the list but isn't? Email us here.
Transparency Bills In State Legislatures
In Arizona, Maryland and Florida representatives took aim at dark money by targeting issues unique to their state.
Maryland: The Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2013 closed Maryland's so-called "LLC loophole," which allowed corporations to bypass state contributions limits by routing the cash through intermediary limited liability corporations -- sometimes created solely for this purpose. This allowed individuals controlling such corporations to give many times the amount typically allowed by state law. The act also raised individual contribution limits and created stricter filing requirements for PACs making independent expenditures -- the so-called super PACs -- while contribution limits for traditional political committees were left untouched.
Although the law does not put any restrictions on the receipts or disbursements of super PACs, it marks the first time that such organizations have been acknowledged in the state's election law. Super PACs (or Independent Expenditure Entities in state parlance) will now have to register with the State Board of Elections.
Florida: While a recently passed Florida bill will disallow the state's "Committees of Continuous Existence," (CCEs) when it goes into effect on Nov. 1, the state's "Political Committees" (read: Super PACs) -- analagous to CCEs in that they may also raise unlimited sums of money -- will remain unchanged. Supporters of the act trumpet it as a step in the right direction as all such money will have to be spent directly on campaigns by the committee that raised it. According to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, state watchdog groups are generally in favor of the bill, which also raises individual contribution limits and requires that financial disclosure forms be made available in an online database.
Arizona: Democrats in the Arizona state Senate are trying to improve disclosure requirements with SB 1265, which would "require an individual or organization contributing money that came from another source to disclose that source to the recipient, including whether that money passed throught any intermediaries" according to Sean Peick of Cronkite News. Though it would be a relatively small step given the recent loosening of PAC contribution limits in the state. No action has taken place on the bill since January.
Increasing hard money limits
As first reported by Adam Wollner of the Center for Public Integrity, a common recent tactic of legislators attempting to dampen the power of outside groups has been to increase the amount of money individuals can contribute.
In April, Arizona's Republican governor, Jan Brewer, signed HB 2593. The measure simultaneously raised the caps on individual contributions and removed aggregate limits on PAC contributions. Critics of the legislation worry that instead of funneling money away from outside spending groups, the measure simply allows more "big money" in Arizona elections, spelling a death sentence for the state's public finance system. Arizona is one of 25 states that provides public funds for state elections, and one of the few to offer full public funding for qualifying state candidates.
In a similar effort, Connecticut Democrats recently pushed HB 6580 through the state legislature to be signed by Gov. Dannel Malloy. The act, which some state Republicans view as a step backwards in campaign transparency, simultaneously removes limits on contributions from state parties, requires greater disclosure from all campaign contributors and imposes larger fines on those who break contribution limits. Supporters of the bill argue that it would funnel money away from murkier special interest sources that have dominated state campaigns in the past.
A new era of public finance?
In Iowa a pro-reform group has championed a three-pronged approach that would set up the state's first-ever system of public financing for state elections -- largely in response to the state's recent influx of outside spending. Together, House Files 43 and 449 and Senate Study Bill 1072 set contribution limits on people and PACs and provide for limited public funding for candidates who agree to take no PAC or super PAC money and no donations exceeding $100.
Lawmakers in the Show Me State, led by Democrat Jason Hollman, are trying to create a system of public financing that would also limit contributions to political party committees to $5,000. That would be a big change in Missouri, one of the four states that places no restrictions on the amount or source of political contributions. The others are Oregon, Utah and Virginia. In these states, independent expenditure committees (i.e. super PACs) hold few advantages, as individuals and corporations may give an unlimited amount of cash directly to candidate committees. The Missouri Times reports that one wealthy financier, Rex Sinquefield, has singlehandedly contributed more than $26 million to Missouri candidates since 2008. Senate Bill 385 would introduce contribution limits, while SB 290 would require greater disclosure of contributions. However, no substantial campaign reform has managed to clear both houses.
New York lawmakers, in response to recent corruption scandals, introduced legislation for partial public financing of state campaigns, though the measure was ultimately killed in the state Senate. The vote fell along partisan lines, with Democrats generally supporting and Republicans uniformly opposing the measure.
In an op-ed piece in the Albany Times Union, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Repulblican, argues against public financing of campaigns, claiming election reform in NYC led to more corruption and that the system would be an unneccessary financial burden on taxpayers.
Federal court opens the floodgates
A recent court ruling throws a wrench in transparency efforts in the Mountain State, according to a report in the Charleston Daily Mail: a federal district judge reversed West Virginia's practice of capping individual contributions to state level super PACs, citing the Citizens United case in his decision.
The Aug. 6 ruling means the state will have super PACs that operate like those at the federal level, and will be able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash influencing campaigns. Though these "unaffiliated committees" (West Virginia's term for super PACs, or groups that make independent expenditures in state elections) will still have to register with the West Virginia Secretary of State's office.
The Mountain State still maintains the relatively low $1,000 limit on individual contributions to candidates, which means that the mounds of super PAC cash will now have even more sway as the growing money from unaffiliated committees may vastly outstrip individiual contributions.
Other efforts are underway to increase regulation of campaign contributions in West Virginia. Senate Bill 88, for example, would prohibit some campaign contributions from active lobbyists.
Sunlight's Open States tool, which tracks legislation at the state level, now features .csv downloads of bulk data. To download a .csv from Open States:
- Query the Open States data;
- Add “-csv” to the new url after the term “bills” and,
- Refresh the page.
A .csv file should automatically download in your browser.
Search methodology: All bills from 2012-2013 were searched using the terms “campaign,” + “finance” + "political" + "committee" + "disclosure." Bills that were clearly not relevant to campaign finance reforms were removed, as were bills that already were defeated or that had died because of legislative inaction.
The Sunlight Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, and provides new tools and resources for media and citizens, alike. A list of Sunlight's funders can be found here.