State lawmakers voted Tuesday to block any efforts by Arizona cities and counties to find out – and inform the public – who is funneling money into local elections through nonprofit groups.
On a 33-25 margin the Republican-controlled House voted to prohibit local government 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 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.
HB 2153 now goes to the Senate, which also is dominated by Republicans.
The legislation comes two years after lawmakers voted to grant more anonymity to donors to organizations that are putting money into independent campaigns for statewide and legislative races. Foes of disclosure have now turned their attention to local races.
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 to 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.
Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, said the measure is badly flawed.
He said an organization can qualify for nonprofit status from the IRS if it does not spend a majority of its funds to influence elections. But Clark said that has no meaning when there are major donors on both the Left and Right who have deep pockets and still can spend multiple millions of dollars to influence elections without endangering that nonprofit status.
Clark said this isn’t just about disclosing on TV commercials and mailings what group has paid for it, along with the ability to find out who is behind that group.
“It’s about the money that that organization, many organizations can spend to intimidate lawmakers at all levels,” he argued.
“It is very cheap,” Clark said. “And now it’s going to be even easier with this bill to hide it.”
But the real issue comes down to what most Republicans and multiple business groups contend is the right of individuals and businesses to influence elections anonymously.
The lone exception to that all-GOP support during Tuesday’s debate was Rep. Noel Campbell of Prescott.
“I believe in anonymity,” he told colleagues. And Campbell said he believes that people have a right to give however much they want to political campaigns.
“But I also believe a citizen should take a step forward and own what he believes in,” he said, saying that’s why he supports disclosure. Campbell said lawmakers should do what they can to fight “dark money.”
“I think it pollutes our system,” he said. And Campbell said he disagrees with the historic 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision which opened the door to corporations having the right to spend money to influence elections.
“If it was up to me, only a living human being could give money,” he said.
Of some note is that both sides cited the writings of Justice Antonin Scalia.
“There are laws against threats and intimidation,” the now-deceased justice wrote in that 2010 ruling, saying that allowing corporations to give does not mean that they — or anyone — have a constitutional right to do so anonymously. “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts foster civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
But Rep. Maria Syms, R-Paradise Valley, hung her vote to allow donors to hide their identities on comments Scalia made two years later while discussing that earlier ruling and political commercials.
“I don’t care who is doing the speech, the more the merrier,” the justice said in 2012.
“People are not stupid,” Scalia continued. “If they don’t like it, they’ll shut it off.”