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Minnesota campaign finance board considers relaxing disclosure rules on ballot initiatives

The Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board will vote Tuesday to update its rules governing disclosure during a ballot campaign. Open government advocates are concerned the ruling could open loopholes just as the state nears the 2012 vote to constitutionally ban gay marriage, a campaign that is expected to draw millions of dollars in outside spending to the state.

The campaign board is proposing changes to its recently released guidance documents. Those documents tell political committees and other groups that get involved in the ballot campaigns how to account for political donations and political expenditures.

The board is considering dropping a section that directed the board’s staff to look into donations that don’t fit neatly into the disclosure requirements.

Already the board has set up disclosure requirements for money spent “that expressly advocates the adoption or defeat of a ballot question measure” or communications that are “susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a ballot question measure.”

But there may be campaign activity that isn’t as cut and dry. The board had included a provision for fundraising appeals that were more ambiguous:

The Board recognizes that communications beyond express advocacy or its functional equivalent may be communications to promote or defeat a ballot question. Staff is directed to provide further research and options for language to extend the definition of ballot question expenditure to these communications.

But at Tuesday’s meeting, the board is considering dropping that provision and that is a problem for government transparency groups like Common Cause Minnesota.

“The staff recommendation could allow millions of dollars of undisclosed money to flow into the ballot campaign in Minnesota,” Mike Dean, the group’s executive director, said in an email to the Minnesota Independent. “At the June 30 meeting, the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board took an important position to protect Minnesotans right to know what special interest are funding the ballot amendment campaigns. Since then the board has begun to reverse that decision because of threats and intimidation from organizations that want to keep Minnesotans in the dark.”

Though two sides of the debate over the anti-gay marriage amendment will be subject to the board’s guidance, only one side has threatened not to follow the rules.

Earlier this month, Minnesota for Marriage said it would not comply with any of the new guidance set forth by the board opting only to follow older rules set up well before the Legislature created a new campaign finance reporting system in 2010. The group is urging Minnesotans to support the constitutional amendment.

Minnesota for Marriage is a partnership between the Catholic bishops, the Minnesota Family Council and the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). NOM and groups affiliated with it have attempted to shield donors and supporters by challenging existing public disclosure laws in almost a dozen states. It has also lost in almost every state the group has launched a challenge.

The board will take up a recommended changes at its meeting on Tuesday which will also include some language tweaks.

The board is dropping its plan to research when and how an organization might be given a waiver that would allow them to opt out of disclosing their donors or expenditures. The board is also proposing changes to language regarding implied fundraising pleas.

Dean said those changes could have serious consequences and that campaign finance loopholes can add up.

“Experience at the federal level has shown this approach creates a huge loophole,” Dean said. “For example, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, a Section 501(c)(4) organization that reported over $16 million in independent campaign expenditures during the 2010 congressional campaign, disclosed none of its donors because none of its contributions were expressly earmarked for political ads.”

Dean added, “This recommendation will only further erode public confidence in government by allowing special interests to hide behind the loopholes created by the board.”

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