CONCORD — The state Senate on Thursday voted to require political and advocacy groups that promote the election or defeat of candidates in state elections to publicly report their receipts and expenditures.
The vote was in favor of a heavily amended Senate Bill 120 was 19-4, with eight Republicans joining all 11 Democrats in favor.
The bill is viewed as a response to spending in 2012 by Americans for Prosperity and other groups targeting Democrats and several Republican incumbents who had conservative primary opposition.
Sen. David Pierce, D-Lebanon, said the bill gave senators "the opportunity to make a choice on whether we structure the law to give voters the information they need to make choices or whether to keep them in the dark. This amendment gives voters the information they need."
Pierce said that even conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, "hardly a champion of government regulation," wrote in the landmark Citizens United decision that with unlimited expenditures being allowed by advocacy groups, there must be disclosure.
Pierce said his amendment redefines a political committee as "any organization of two or more persons that promotes the success or defeat of a candidate or candidates or measure or measures."
He said that the Attorney General and Secretary of State currently interpret a political committee as "one person" spending money in an election, and so, he said, they do not have to report.
Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett, strongly opposed the Pierce amendment as invasion of the right of free speech. He called it "the most pernicious piece of legislation that I've seen in the 10 years I've been up here.
"If you have a group that wants to support issues, now they would have to report," said Boutin. "For what? They are not advocating the success or defeat of a candidate. It's a slippery slope."
"It's a shame that our federal legislators aren't looking at this as well," said Sen. Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, who backed the bill.
Prescott said he did not know if it will be upheld in the courts, "but I'm willing to take a chance on it. I want people to know where all the information they see on television is coming from."
The bill does not apply to any activity "designed to encourage individuals to register to vote" as long as the communication does not mention a candidate.
Pierce explained after the Senate session that under the current interpretation, such a groups "would have to work in concert with someone else" to be considered a political committee.
Pierce said the bill's goal is to "identify those groups that have been involved in elections while protecting constitutionality and preserving the right of groups to issue advocacy without reporting. But if they're going to spend money on our elections, then voters have a right to know that."
He said groups that run ads that ask voters to call an elected official and ask them a question or to organize in a certain way do not have to file. But if the groups support or oppose a candidate, they would have to file, even if they do not say outright "vote for" or "vote against" a clearly identified candidate.