Minnesota a model in disclosure law

  • Article by: JEREMY HERB , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 11, 2010 - 10:37 PM

Other states seeking guidance on campaign donations.

WASHINGTON - A Minnesota campaign law requiring disclosure of corporate donations is fast becoming a national model in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts in elections.

Finding their elections awash in secret donations, other states are looking for a way to replicate Minnesota's law, which requires disclosure of funding sources for groups that spend on political advertising for or against a candidate.

"Minnesota has helped lead the way when it comes to disclosure," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a watchdog group started by Ralph Nader.

It was the state law that triggered a national stir against Target Corp., by forcing disclosure of the retail giant's $150,000 political contribution to Minnesota Forward, a group supporting gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, a Republican, who opposes same-sex marriage. News of the contribution set off a chain reaction among gay customers and supporters of same-sex marriage.

Minnesota is one of a handful of states that has passed source disclosure laws since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in January threw out bans on corporate political spending.

The Target incident, along with a recent complaint filed by government watchdog group Common Cause Minnesota against the Republican Governors Association, tests the new frontier in a campaign world radically altered by the decision.

Nationally, outside political spending has skyrocketed this election season even as disclosure has been dropping. Independent interest groups are on track to spend about $500 million across the country, a study by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity found.

Target donation

Much of the money is coming from non-profit groups that don't report their donors.

"The Target situation has galvanized attention nationally," said Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, who plans to introduce legislation similar to Minnesota's. "The public's right of boycott is the final check against corporate dominance over our politics."

But critics, like former Minnesota U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, the CEO of the "action tank" American Action Network, see the Target case as a partisan attempt to stymie political speech, making companies think twice before exercising the free speech rights granted by the Supreme Court.

"The other side simply wants to close down contributions to conservative groups," said Coleman, whose non-profit does not have to disclose its donors. "You can see the tactics on the left: Beat the heck out of a Minnesota corporation. And in the end, I think it instills fear into others in stepping into the political arena."

A new frontier

Minnesota was one of 24 states where laws banning corporate political spending were voided by the high court ruling.

Some states didn't have enough time to craft a response before their legislative session ended. In Minnesota, it came down to the final day before a compromise bill was passed.

"Many times I thought it was dead," said state Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who led the campaign finance charge in the state House.

The bill required groups making independent expenditures to report the source of their funding -- a step beyond most of the dozen other states that have passed disclosure legislation. In other aspects of campaign finance law, such as the timing of spending reports, Minnesota doesn't go as far.

The law applies to state elections, not to congressional, senate or presidential races, which are governed by federal rules.

The legislation does not require disclosure from "issue ads," however, which are different from political ads because they don't expressly endorse or oppose a candidate. The line can be fuzzy: A recent spot by the National Organization for Marriage saying Emmer was the only candidate who opposes gay marriage, for instance, is one example of an "issue ad."

Minnesota's law, like many across the country, has been challenged in court by three groups: Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and Coastal Travel Enterprises. The case was dismissed in U.S. district court; an appeal is pending.

Democrats hoped to pass federal legislation in Congress similar to Minnesota's, but Republicans filibustered the bill in the Senate.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat who has harshly criticized the Supreme Court's ruling, said he does not think the federal bill will pass this year.

While open government groups point to the Target case as a reason for disclosure, they also have expressed concern that it has pushed corporations and independent expenditure groups to work harder at keeping donations secret.

"It confirms that many corporations, especially ones in retail businesses that deal with the public, have reason to be gun shy about political activity," said Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, which researches election spending.

Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723

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