Disclosing politicized non-profits

Transparency leads to honest politics. In recent years many political groups have gone undercover and disguised themselves as “non-profits” in order to evade disclosure laws and hide their donors and activities from voters. Stephen Colbert demonstrated this brilliantly with his SuperPAC and this helped build a reform movement.

The Texas Legislature has passed a bill  (SB 346) sponsored by Senator Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) and Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) that would require that “non-profit” groups that engage in political activities disclose donors who give more than $1,000. That is, non-profit groups that behave like political committees have to follow some of the same disclosure rules that political committees do.

I’m fond of transparency for several reasons.

  1. As a voter: I want to know who is helping candidates. I understand the desire for donors to conceal their identify. However, this is outweighed by the public’s right to know. I want to know who is financing these candidates. The dollars passing through the loopholes in the law are getting to be as plentiful as the money flowing through legal channels. Voters need to know who is paying for these campaigns.
  2. As a political scientist: I want to know who is investing in Texas politics. The impact of organized interests in Texas politics is legendary and we will never know who really holds power if we don’t know who is controlling the purse strings of campaigns. Teaching Texas politics means pulling back the curtain and showing students who is putting money into Texas elections.
  3. As a charitable giver: I don’t like political organizations disguising themselves as  something like charities. As I write this, West is only  beginning to rebuild after the massive explosion that scarred that city and Granbury is trying to recover from a tornado that cut through their community with devastating consequences. Political non-profits have no business hiding behind the skirts of real charities. The contribution to nasty, misleading, partisan ads does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath or same section of tax code as the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, or Salvation Army as they try to help Texans in need.. Investing in lies and investing in hope are very different things. God help us if our laws conflate charity and political committees. We separated church and state, in part, to protect the reputation of our churches. Let’s not blur the line any more than we have to.

Perry will sign the bill if he is still interested in being governor. This reform bill enjoys broad, bipartisan support. Legislators know that reforms are needed and the ability of this bill to attract support from both parties suggests that it’s a reasonable bill. Perry could sign the bill and proclaim the virtues of  fair elections in Texas. He would be championing the transparency and openness he has embraced in the past. As The Beaumont Enterprise noted in their editorial endorsing the bill:

The bill is designed to shine light on nonprofit “issue advocacy” groups that are allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on their favored candidate as long as they don’t campaign directly for that candidate. Political action committees (PACs) have to divulge information about the money they raise and spend, but these issue advocacy groups, basically super PACs with innocuous names such as American Crossroads (Karl Rove’s group), can hide in the dark.

Perry will veto the bill if he is thinking like a presidential candidate. He can rail against big government and the Internal Revenue Service and attempt to gain national attention (and the favor of some of the mega-donors). A veto could become fodder for some lively speeches, fiery direct mail fundraising letters, and personal messages to large donors. Saying no will be hard.

A potential presidential candidate who expected to find themselves dependent on the financial backers lurking in these phony non-profit group would veto this bill. A governor who wants to leave a legacy of institutional reform will embrace transparency and sign the bill.

**UPDATE**

PolitiFact.com put out an analysis that discusses the term “charity” as it relates to how these groups function. I’ve revised the post a little to minimize the liberties I took with the term.

The Center for Public Integrity released a study (“Tobacco giant funded conservative nonprofits“) that reveled how large some of the contributions can be:

Reynolds American’s contributions include $175,000 to Americans for Tax Reform, a nonprofit led by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, and $50,000 to Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy outfit heavily backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

May 25 Update:

Perry has vetoed the bill citing “freedom of association and freedom of speech.”  It’s not clear why (or if) Perry supports  current disclosure laws since their impact on freedom of association and freedom of speech would be identical. However, Perry has never been known for consistency on libertarian concerns.

 

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