A bill aimed at revealing the source of anonymous campaign spending known as “dark money” appeared terminally stalled in the Senate, but its sponsor is still hoping to remove the obstacles that stand in its way.
The Senate Elections Committee unanimously approved SB1403, with several lawmakers expressing concerns but voting for it anyway. But the legislation was double-assigned to the Senate Government and Environment Committee, where it didn’t get a hearing before the Feb. 21 deadline for bills to be heard in committee in their chamber of origin.
If Senate President Andy Biggs and Sen. Gail Griffin, who chairs the Government and Environment Committee, agree to pull SB1403 from its second committee, it could still move on to the Senate floor and potentially over to the House. But Biggs, R-Gilbert, said he’s never pulled a bill from a committee assignment, and that Sen. Michele Reagan, the bill’s sponsor, hasn’t asked him to.
Reagan, R-Scottsdale, said she plans to meet with Biggs soon in the hope that she can persuade him to pull SB1403 from its second committee.
“He hasn’t ever released bills, so I guess that would make sense. But if I can prove to him that this is something worthy of the floor, he may have some other options,” Reagan said.
Reagan said Biggs’ approval could help convince Griffin to release the bill from her committee. Both the Senate president and committee chair must agree to release it from a committee assignment.
Griffin, R-Hereford, said her committee simply ran out of time to hear SB1403. She was noncommittal as to whether she’d agree to release it.
“I’ll think about it,” she said.
Even if she can’t persuade Biggs, Reagan said her proposal could find life later in the session as a strike-everything amendment.
“I don’t consider it over,” Reagan said.
She said there’s a lot of support in the Legislature for her bill. And over the past six months, she said, support for requiring more disclosure of dark money has increased because of a rising awareness of the issue.
A recent article by the nonprofit investigative journalism organization ProPublica highlighted Arizona political consultant Sean Noble’s central role in a network of nonprofit organizations that doled out $137 million in anonymous campaign spending in 2012. And Reagan said some political observers say a new political action committee created to support Hillary Clinton could be the biggest super PAC ever.
Concerns amid support
During the debate in the Senate Elections Committee, several lawmakers said they support the concept of the bill. But some had concerns as well.
Critics of the bill testified that it could have unintended consequences, such as forcing legitimate companies to disclose the source of funds they use for electioneering or that regulators such as the Secretary of State’s Office would have too much power to investigate and subpoena entities that engage in electioneering.
Elections attorney Mike Liburdi also questioned whether the bill would create a “chilling effect” that discourages people from exercising their First Amendment rights to spend money in elections.
Several lawmakers voted for the bill, but said they had concerns they’d like to see addressed if it moved forward. Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, said the Legislature should proceed cautiously and fairly, while Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, said the bill shouldn’t go into effect until after the 2014 election in order to help sort out any unintended consequences.
“I support the bill’s premise,” Yee said. “However, it concerns me as the testimony was brought up today that this also could be suppressing our constitutional First Amendment rights in the freedom to express, what the Supreme Court has in the past called our marketplace of ideas. And we certainly shouldn’t let the government get in the way of the value of our speech.”
Sen. Adam Driggs, R-Phoenix, said he also had concerns based on testimony he heard.
“I am concerned under the balancing act that we’re trying to accomplish with this bill, in light of the Supreme Court case Citizens United and free speech issues. Will we be able to accomplish our goals?” Driggs said. “Will there be loopholes that are created to get around them?”
Reagan, who chairs the Senate Elections Committee, said everyone who opposed the bill has one thing in common — they don’t want the Legislature to take action on the issue of dark money.
“They don’t want this discussion. They don’t want to change. They want status quo,” she said. “Their clients do not want us to see what they’re doing. And you should have a problem with that, because the 6 million Arizonans out there have a problem with that.”
Reagan said she won’t push “anything crazy that the state can’t live with,” but insisted that dark money disclosure is important to the public and popular on both sides of the political aisle.
“How cautious and fair is a system that allows people to spend unlimited amounts of money … but remain hidden? How is that a system that the public can trust? Do you honestly think the public is going to stand for this that much longer?” she said.
Biggs has expressed concerns as well.
“There is some language in that bill that I think is unworkable whether you support the concept or not. There’s some language that is literally unworkable that has to be corrected,” he told the Arizona Capitol Times.
SB1403 would bar corporations, LLCs and labor unions from shielding the source of campaign cash by transferring it through other entities; require corporations and LLCs to register as political committees if their primary purpose is to influence elections; and would require advertisements by independent expenditures to list their top three identifiable contributors.
— Ben Giles contributed to this article.