Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 15, 2013

GOP split over disclosing ad funding sources

Associated Press

---- — LANSING (AP) — Hours after Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson proposed requiring political parties and other interests to disclose individual donors who pay for certain election ads, the state Senate moved quickly to keep intact the existing rules so contributors stay anonymous.

Gov. Rick Snyder may ultimately have to resolve the showdown among Republicans, which came as GOP senators also narrowly voted to double campaign donation limits that have gone unchanged for 37 years. Spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said the Republican governor has taken no position on requiring campaign-finance reporting for “issue” ads.

“The governor believes free speech is important and so is transparency,” she said. “This issue is how to balance and ensure both.”

Michigan says only ads urging voters to support or oppose a candidate are subject to campaign-finance reporting. Issue ads, or “electioneering communications,” that define a candidate’s suitability for office without directly calling for a yes or no vote are exempt under a 2004 statement from Johnson’s predecessor, Terri Lynn Land, which was based on a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Johnson said the usually negative ads, which often encourage voters to contact candidates, meet the letter but not spirit of the law.

“People very much support, want and deserve transparency,” she told reporters after filing a new administrative rule to require sponsors of issue ads to file reports and meet disclosure requirements.

But Senate Republicans hastily changed a campaign finance bill in committee to codify that spending on issue ads is not subject to reporting. The Senate then approved the bill on a 20-18 vote, with six Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.

The legislation goes to the GOP-led House.

To justify the new rule, which could take more than a year for regulatory approval, state elections director Chris Thomas said much has changed since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling that allowed corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts independent of candidates.

Yet Bob LaBrant, senior counsel with the Sterling Corp., a Republican political firm in Lansing, said he expects Snyder to sign the bill when it reaches his desk. He said Johnson’s reliance on the 2010 ruling is “bunk” because it involved urging the election or defeat of a candidate, not issue advocacy.

In announcing her decision, Johnson declined a September request from the State Bar of Michigan to single out judicial ads for disclosure, saying she has to take an across-the-board approach.

Her rule drew opposition from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which has long defended its constitutional rights of free speech and association.

“There is no dark money here at the Michigan Chamber,” said President and CEO Rich Studley. “Every issue advocacy ad we run is approved by me as CEO and all of our ads clearly state ‘paid for by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.’ Here in Lansing and across the state, no one has any doubt who we are.”

The bill approved Thursday also would double maximum contributions to candidates in an election cycle — to $6,800 for non-legislative state offices, $2,000 for Senate contenders and $1,000 for House candidates. Individuals could give $40,000 instead of $20,000 a year to legislative caucus campaign committees, which would no longer be barred from spending in primary elections.

Limits would rise with inflation, and candidates would have to file more statements in non-election years.

“We believe costs of everything have gone up. So has (the) cost of running for office,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Arlen Meekhof of West Olive. “I believe this is the proper thing to do. And it benefits both sides of the aisle.”

But other senators questioned the move that also was criticized by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network watchdog group, which said 99.9 of residents do not contribute maximum amounts.

“No one has ever said there is too little money in campaigns today,” said Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whiter, an East Lansing Democrat.


Senate Bill 661:


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