In our initial Political Law and Campaign Finance Update posting before Thanksgiving, we introduced the readers of the Politics, Law and Policy Blog to several campaign finance reform “roadmaps” being proposed for consideration at the federal level in 2013. The call for substantive changes in the rules governing the interplay of money and politics is growing increasingly loud at the state level as well, however. In fact, in many ways, state legislators and regulators are well ahead of their federal brethren in terms of implementation and enforcement in the campaign finance context.
This is particularly the case in respect to the enforcement of campaign finance disclosure obligations by non-profit groups that engage in political advocacy activities at the state and local level. While the FEC and IRS struggle in their efforts to promote greater non-profit transparency at the federal level, an increasing number of state agencies have been taking concerted and aggressive action in this area. For example, in recent weeks specific efforts have been undertaken in California, Idaho, Montana and Maine to turn up the pressure on 501c(4)s and other non-profit groups to reveal their financial backers and spending activities.
A leading jurisdiction in the battle over non-profit transparency has been California, where the California Fair Political Practices Commission (CFPPC) has been vigorously pursuing regulatory and legal action against organizations that attempt to skirt disclosure obligations. A prime example of this uptick in enforcement can be seen in the CFPPC’s recent decision to file suit against an Arizona-based non-profit group, Americans for Responsible Leadership (ARL), in order to force disclosure of its donors. Following a settlement agreement whereby ARL agreed to divulge its direct (rather than primary source) contributors, the California Attorney General’s Office has also joined the CFPPC in calling for “further investigation” into the compliance obligations of non-profit political entities.
Similar enforcement pushes have also been seen in Idaho, Montana and Maine over the past few weeks. In Idaho, the Secretary of State’s Office recently filed suit against 501c(4) group Education Voters of Idaho (EVI), which funded more than $200,000 in advertisements concerning state ballot measures during the 2012 election cycle, to compel disclosure of its donors. This effort proved successful, as an Idaho state judge subsequently issued an order requiring the public release of EVI’s financial contributors.
In Montana, the state’s Commissioner of Political Practices recently determined that the non-profit group American Tradition Partnership (ATP) qualified as a political committee under state law and should therefore be subject to donor disclosure requirements. Despite ATP’s efforts to fight this determination, a Montana state judge recently ordered the release of various ATP financial records, which publicly revealed substantive data regarding the entity’s political activities and financial backers.
In Maine, a similar story is unfolding, as the State Ethics Commission is investigating the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and seeking to compel its compliance with donor reporting requirements. While the disclosure fight between ethics officials and NOM rages on in state and federal court, the state has increased its scrutiny of NOM on other fronts by fining the non-profit for filing its latest campaign finance disclosure statement a mere 14 hours after the submission deadline.
Examples such as these are just the opening volley in what will undoubtedly be an intense legal and regulatory battle over campaign finance reform and enforcement in the non-profit context moving forward. Heading into 2013, the Political Law and Campaign Finance Update will be here to keep readers of this blog up to date on key reform proposals and policy developments affecting the world of campaign finance in Washington and beyond. Stay tuned for our next update.