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Attorneys General in NY, CA, ID, ME, MT Take Aim at Campaign Finance Disclosure (Since the Federal Government Won’t)

With federal regulators refusing to take notice and the DISCLOSE Act stalled in Congress, the honus is on state Attorneys General to take up the fight to force the tax-exempt groups that spent hundreds of millions in the 2012 election to disclose their donors.

Campaign finance reform has been anathema to the federal government, ostensibly because it relies heavily upon its unscrupulous relations with the ĂĽber-wealthy, so Attorneys General in California, New York, Idaho, Maine, and Montana (where campaign finance has been a hot topic) are going to court in order to have tax-exempt groups comply with state campaign finance disclosure laws.

Grassroots efforts have been the only source of pressure on the IRS and FEC to review their standards when it comes to tax-exempt groups and candidates. The first presidential election since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC saw over $400 million spent by organizations such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS which, under law, laughably act as tax-exempt social welfare non-profits. Under this designation groups are not required to disclose their donors. They are also not supposed to be de facto fundraising arms of extreme political ideologies as they routinely — arguably exclusively — are.

Ironically, Attorneys General are taking a page out of the Republican playbook in making this a “states rights” issue. According to Ann Ravel, chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission:

“It’s clear that because of the failure of the federal government to act in this arena, it’s necessary for the states to become more active,”

Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, told Roll Call:

“They can’t undo this unlimited money” following Citizens United, Ryan said. “But the Supreme Court has strongly supported disclosure. And the states have broad latitude to require groups that are spending money to influence their state’s election to disclose where they’re getting that money.”

Since 2010, states have begun to consider changing their laws in order to force social welfare non-profits to disclose their donors. Among those states is New York where Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has proposed regulations such as forcing said groups to report what percentage of their expenditures go to elections and who finances them. According to an email from Schniederman to Roll Call:

In an election, voters have the right to know what special interests are trying to influence elections before they cast their ballots,” Schneiderman said in an email. “By shining a light on this dark corner of the political process, New York can serve as a model for other states, and for the federal government, to protect the integrity of our election system.”

Just days after the November election NBC News noted that the strategy of American Crossroads was an abysmal failure.

A study Wednesday by the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks political spending, concluded that Rove’s super PAC, American Crossroads, had a success rate of just 1 percent on $103 million in attack ads — one of the lowest “returns on investment” (ROIs) of any outside spending group in this year’s elections.

Hoping for the failure of dark money is not a good campaign finance reform approach. State mettle on this issue may be the only way to counter the deterioration of electoral transparency and the corporate overreach that is sure to shape the Citizens United States in the coming years. Businesses that secretly invest in politics, whether they had their way in 2012 or not, will continue to secretly invest in politics. As long as it’s secret.


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