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Minnesota’s Campaign Finance Board looks at expanding authority

The board is seeking extra money and could use it to focus on funding disclosures for outside groups trying to influence elections.

Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group founded by Charles and David Koch (above), spent money on Republican candidates in Minnesota this year, but no one knows how much because, as an educational group, Americans for Prosperity is not required to disclose.
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Minnesota’s Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board not only is contemplating asking the Legislature for more money but also looking at expanding its authority to put that money to use.

On Wednesday, the board meets to consider a request to increase its annual budget from $689,000 to $1 million. The increase would be funded by a direct legislative appropriation or by an increase in fees paid by lobbyists, political parties and independent expenditure groups.

The extra money could make the board extra-vigilant.

“The board is interested in becoming more proactive,” said Executive Director Gary Goldsmith. “This board has recognized that there’s already a lot of interest for better disclosure and this election has pointed out we don’t have the best disclosure.”

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The 2012 election saw an unprecedented burst in spending from outside groups that wanted to influence the political makeup of the Legislature. With the increase in spending comes an increase in complaints.

The board already has received a request for what would be a major investigation.  The Republican Party of Minnesota has alleged that the DFL Party accepted illegal contributions from corporations, hidden in a contribution made by a political action committee that co-mingles private and corporate donations.

The board is also looking at bringing more groups in line with Minnesota’s campaign finance disclosure laws by asking the Legislature to expand the definition of what constitutes a candidate endorsement.

Specifically, the board is considering whether groups that try to influence an election but don’t specifically endorse should be required to disclose the sources of their funding.

Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group founded by Charles and David Koch, is an example. Its Minnesota website focuses on the issues, not the candidates. The group did spend money on Republican candidates this year, but no one knows how much because, as an educational group, Americans for Prosperity is not required to disclose. 

“Those groups know exactly what the rules are,” said Goldsmith. “They may talk about someone’s record or thank them. They use different tactics, but they always avoid those magic words.”

So, the board of six is debating whether to ask the Legislature to broaden the definition.

According to proposals under consideration, “express advocacy means any communication that when taken as a whole and with limited reference to external events, such as the proximity to the election, could be interpreted by a reasonable person as containing advocacy of the election or defeat” of a candidate.

Goldsmith is anticipating some pushback on the proposal to raise filing fees.

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“I would expect the most opposition to a fee program to come from the campaign finance sector, and in particular from party units and political funds,” he wrote in material prepared for the board’s consideration. “If these arguments materialize, they will be based on the burden that a fee places on speech.”

It’s possible, though, that proposals to regulate a broader range of advocacy voices will draw an even louder protest.

“This is essentially a mini-McCain-Feingold, trying to create a structure around non-election freedom of speech, which should raise alarm bells,” said Mike Franklin who helped run the independent expenditure group Minnesota’s Future.

Franklin said he understands the concept of trying to regulate an election ad hiding as issue advocacy, but “you are running a very slippery slope. It’s kind of in the eye of the beholder.”

And, he maintains, issue groups across the spectrum should be concerned. “Just because you’re the Koch brothers does not mean you’re up to a nefarious pursuit,” he said. “I’d say the same thing about Education Minnesota, public employees unions. Any group that has the resources is going to try to do issue advocacy.”

The board takes up a package of legislative initiatives at its meeting on Wednesday with no expectation that any of the proposals will be adopted.

What is certain is that if a government board takes up an issue tied to free speech, the speeches that follow will be noisy.