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Critics Say Campaign Finance Law Would Discourage Donors

Wednesday, April 04, 2012


Legislation that would require full disclosure of previously unregulated political expenditures has some critics concerned private donors will be scared away from donating to small “grassroots organizations.”

The bill, which is sponsored in the House by Rep. Chris Blazejewski and in the Senate by Sen. Juan Picharado and has full support of General Assembly leadership as well as Governor Chafee, would require those engaging in “independent expenditures” and “electioneering communications” to report donors and expenditures to the Rhode Island State Board of Elections and to include disclaimers on media and Internet advertising.

Supporters say the legislation would be a crucial step toward preventing Super PACs from anonymously spending unlimited money on local elections the way they have done around the country on both the Presidential race and several Congressional races.

But opponents say they are concerned about a piece of the legislation that says political organizations would have to make public a list of their top five contributors. Lisa Blais, who heads up the Ocean State Tea Party in Action, said that while she supports transparency, she is concerns small donors may be discouraged from contributing to her organization.

“We are uncertain if this leaves open an interpretation that may adversely affect our profile pages on each representative and senator contained on our web site and whether or not this bill may be interpreted to force us to disclose donors who make small contributions to OSTPA; thereby discouraging small donors who may wish to remain anonymous,” Blais said. “In as much as we support transparency in context of the public sector union electioneering activity, we do need clarification of the bill's impact on citizen grassroots organizations.”

Groups Should Disclose Donors

But Common Cause executive director John Marion, who helped draft the legislation, says Rhode Island residents deserve to know who is trying to influence their votes.

“Our belief is that once you enter the public square and start advocating on behalf of or against candidates or referenda, you should have to reveal who your backers are,” he said.

Marion said donors can still remain anonymous as long as their money isn’t used for advertising.

“I think that represents and misunderstanding of the bill,” he said. “You can remain anonymous, as long as the money is not used for the advertising. So, a group like the Tea Party can raise money for overhead, etc. and the donations can be anonymous, as long as they create a segregated account for the advertising.”

Could Threaten Our Elections

But in a state where the average General Assembly seat generally costs less than $25,000, the concern among legislators is that anonymous donors from out-of-state could play too much of a role in the outcomes of local races this year.

“This legislation is aimed at disclosing who is trying to exert influence over campaigns,” Blazejewski said in February. “In a small state like Rhode Island, the funding available to a super PAC could threaten to undermine our elections with unknown, undisclosed, and potentially limitless political spending. This act is about letting the public know who is behind the message, so Rhode Islanders can make informed judgments about what they’re being told.”

Pichardo said full disclosure is importantly, particularly during election season.

“Transparency is very important in all of government, and especially the election process. Our constituents deserve to know who is making the contributions that fund campaigns designed to influence them at the ballot box, and I am proud to sponsor this legislation which provides this accountability in the campaign process,” he said.


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