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League of Women Voters forum: Campaign disclosure advocates look long term

Gary Goldsmith discusses campaign finance reform during the May 14 annual meeting of the League of Women Voters’ Cottage Grove/Woodbury chapter. Goldsmith is executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente)

Any successful attempt at broader campaign finance disclosure laws likely would require a groundswell of public support, advocates predicted, and it will take time.

Efforts to disclose financing information of nonprofit groups and independent organizations that influence elections is actively opposed by some of those groups, transparency advocates said.

“You have to sell the public on why we need better disclosure,” Gary Goldsmith told a south Washington County group recently.

Broader campaign finance disclosure was the focus of a panel discussion during the May 14 annual meeting of the League of Women Voters’ Cottage Grove/Woodbury chapter. The group heard from Goldsmith, executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board; Jeremy Schroeder of Common Cause Minnesota; and Sherri Knuth, Minnesota League of Women Voters’ policy and outreach manager. All three favor more campaign finance disclosure.

The panelists pointed to two U.S. Supreme Court cases — Citizens United, and this year’s McCutcheon decision — that have stricken certain limits on election spending by corporate and special interest groups. However, independent expenditure groups do not share the same campaign finance disclosure requirements as candidates. There is less required reporting of who supports independent expenditures, such as advertisements that do not explicitly advocate voting for or against a particular candidate.

Disclosure advocates said that is troubling because groups may spend money to affect elections and then see candidates elected who share their position on issues. The end result is special interest groups swaying legislation, Schroeder said.

“It’s something that we very, very much see,” he said.

The advocates suggested that may not change anytime soon. A bill in the Minnesota Legislature to require more disclosure by independent groups fell short in 2013 and didn’t make it through the legislative process this year either.

Supporters said some Democrats in the DFL-controlled Legislature said they wouldn’t vote for the disclosure bill because it is opposed by the influential Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, a pro-life advocacy group, and the National Rifle Association. Those groups, and others, “score” lawmakers on votes, and the scores can affect lawmakers’ support in their home districts.

Interest groups have opposed further public disclosure of their independent expenditure funding because they say it could have a chilling effect on their donors.

It’s also possible, Goldsmith said, that some groups may not want their donors known publicly.

It’s not purely a partisan issue, however. To some extent both political parties feel they’re getting something from the money spent by independent expenditure groups, Knuth said. There are both conservative and liberal groups that fund election-related advertising without having to disclose some of their finances.

The amount of spending by outside groups is “phenomenal,” Goldsmith said.

Competitive state legislative races, for instance, will attract far more money from outside groups than what the candidates themselves spend. Goldsmith pointed to a 2012 suburban state Senate race in which independent expenditures alone exceeded $100,000 on each side.

“It’s going to be higher every (election) year,” he predicted.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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