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May 09. 2012 12:39AM

Campaign finance bill targets nonprofits

CONCORD — The Senate is set to vote today on a bill that would require nonprofit organizations and other groups to report the money they spend on state and national political races.

Both liberal and conservative-oriented groups are raising concerns about the bill, HB 1704, which a Senate committee amended earlier this month to include the expanded reporting requirements.

The bill would expand the definition of a political committee in current campaign finance statutes to include tax-exempt corporations, specifically identifying 501(c)(4)s, 501(c)(5)s, and 501(c)(6)s, which include social advocacy groups, labor unions and business associations, among others.

The 501(c)(4) groups have generated controversy recently — particularly in the wake of Supreme Court's Citizens United decision — as a means for donors to anonymously funnel contributions to so- called Super PACs.

Groups whose “receipts or expenditures in support of a candidate, measure, or political party” exceed $2,500 would be required to file reports with the Secretary of State's Office, starting 12 weeks before a primary election, following the same schedule as party and candidate committees.

The amended bill is being promoted by the Coalition for Open Democracy, a Concord-based group that seeks to limit the influence of money on elections.

“The need for greater disclosure became clear when Citizens United opened the floodgates for independent expenditures,” said Olivia Zink, the program director for the coalition, which includes the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire and the NH Citizens Alliance.

Zink pointed to a study her group conducted of the 2010 races for state Senate, Executive Council and governor, which found that of the $3.5 million in independent expenditures, less than $60,000 was reported with the Secretary of State's Office.

The bill is facing resistance from the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union.

State ACLU Executive Director Claire Ebel said she was particularly concerned about a section requiring disclosure when a group pays for “distribution of information critical of a member of the general court who has not filed for office.”

“I believe this is in direct violation of the First Amendment right to anonymous speech about non-candidates who are public people,” she said.

The conservative-oriented Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy also criticized this component of the bill, noting that it would allow expenditures for material praising incumbents to go unreported.

Senate leaders are expected to propose a floor amendment today aimed at addressing some of these concerns.

Ebel said the bill also seemed to cast a wide a net, and that it could stifle the ability of advocacy groups, including her own — a 501(c)(4) — to communicate about issues.

“I think it really does muddy the waters substantially. I think the dividing line should be organizations only engaged in direct electioneering,” she said.

The committee reports must include the name and address of donors and the amount of their donations, along with the amount and a description of the group's expenditures.

In addition, groups must report “electioneering” expenditures that exceed $2,500 within 24 hours.

Zink, of the Coalition for Open Democracy, said the bill was modeled after legislation passed in Maine that was upheld by the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

“This does not squash speech at all,” she said. “It lets us know who is speaking.”


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