Campaign finance reform will be a hot topic on Utah’s Capitol Hill during the 2014 session, especially after the House investigation into John Swallow revealed a number of economic shenanigans during his 2012 campaign. But, the zeal for reform may run into Constitutional concerns about privacy.
You may remember some of the dirty tricks used against former Rep. Brad Daw in the 2012 election. According to House investigators, the payday lending industry, aided by John Swallow, poured money into a nonprofit organization that attacked Daw by making some misleading claims about his position on healthcare reform. That was in retaliation for Daw proposing to regulate the payday industry.
In response, Rep. Greg Hughes pushed HB43, which requires a corporation to disclose the names of donors if the organization uses that money for political purposes. That bill passed in 2013 before any of the Swallow antics came to light.
At a Wednesday Hinckley Institute discussion on campaign finance reform, Bill Maurer, Executive Director of the Institute for Justice’s Washington chapter, said that added disclosure may be a feel-good measure, but it actually would harm the political process.
“The cost of disclosure actually outweighs the benefits,” said Maurer. “It could force smaller organizations out of the political arena because they don’t want to mess with the extra burdens of bureaucracy that disclosure would place on them.”
Rep. Greg Hughes countered that the disclosure creates a level playing field because not everyone is playing by the same rules now.
“Money is the mother’s milk of any campaign. As a candidate, I want to know where that money is coming from. Right now we have this ‘underbelly’ of campaign finance where nobody knows where it’s coming from.”
Maurer argues that increased disclosure makes public information about people for simply getting involved in the political process, and opens them up to harassment because of their beliefs.
“Richard Nixon would not have needed an ‘enemies list’ today. All he would need to do is visit the FEC website and go over the donation forms of those who are giving to his political opponents,” said Maurer.
Maurer also brought up the example of members of the LDS Church who donated to the effort to pass Prop. 8 in California, which banned same-sex marriage in that state.
“This information is accessible to anyone, and it sometimes leads to boycotts and harassment of people simply because of their political views,” he said.
Hughes countered that he wants to know who is trying to influence elections, citing the Koch brothers or casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
“Elections are not seances,” he said. “I don’t care who wants to speak out in elections as long as we know who they are. That way voters can make a choice for themselves about the messages they’re hearing.”
Hughes says he’s open to making changes to HB43 that will improve the bill, but he noted that the measure passed by the legislature in 2013 should withstand any sort of constitutional challenge in court.