'Dark money' bill fails in voice vote

House Bill 1425 aimed to stop coordination between candidates, PACs

A proposed bill to reveal the names of individual donors to so-called "dark-money" political campaign ads -- like those that drew criticism in the final weeks of an Arkansas Supreme Court race last year -- failed in a voice vote Monday in a state House committee.

The legislation, House Bill 1425, also aimed to virtually stop candidates and their staffs from coordinating with political committees and other groups to create high-cost television and radio ads that currently skirt state laws regulating campaign contribution limits.

"It sounded close," said Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, about Monday afternoon's voice vote by the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs. Tucker sponsored the bill.

Chairman Nate Bell, R-Mena, paused before saying the no's had the majority. No one asked for a roll call vote, so the yea-nay totals aren't known.

Tucker said after Monday's meeting that he hopes to gather enough votes to pass a limited version before the legislative session's end. The amended bill would focus on coordinated advertising on television or radio between candidates' campaigns and outside groups.

Most of the opposition Monday centered on the portion of the bill that would have required disclosure of donors' names.

Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, said the measure may be constitutional and may exist in some form in 25 other states, but he argued that constitutionality does not always mean something's the right thing to do.

"To me it seems like we're dealing with people's privacy rights." Ballinger told Tucker. "Somebody gives $100 or $250... and essentially their donors' list will be made public, which leaves a lot of opportunity for people to go out and use a little intimidation, to make direct contact with people.

"It leaves a lot of room for people's rights to participate in their government to be subject to scrutiny, and also on top of that, it leaves room for them to become victims."

Dan Greenberg of the Advance Arkansas Institute also spoke against the bill, citing examples of people who felt they were retaliated against for donating money to the campaign in favor of California's Proposition 8. Proposition 8 created a constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage in California, but a federal judge later ruled the amendment unconstitutional.

Opponents compiled and distributed lists of people who had given money to the campaign in support of Proposition 8, Greenberg said.

The issue of unnamed donors came up in Arkansas during last year's nonpartisan state Supreme Court race between then-Court of Appeals Judge Robin Wynne and attorney Tim Cullen.

The Law Enforcement Alliance of America, based in Lake Ridge, Va., spent an estimated $400,000 targeting Cullen, who lost the race.

The ads claimed Cullen called child pornography a "victimless crime" while he served as a court-appointed attorney for a man who pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography. Cullen and his supporters said the ads did not correctly portray what he said.

It was never clear who donated money to the Virginia group for the Arkansas advertising.

About 50 attorneys, former judges and others spoke against so-called "dark money" in Arkansas judicial elections during a news conference on the Capitol steps last May.

In a separate instance, the Arkansas Ethics Commission dismissed a complaint related to coordinated-communication campaign ads in January involving newly elected Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's race.

Blogger Matt Campbell filed a complaint about more than $300,000 in advertising that featured Rutledge but was paid for by the national Republican Attorneys General Association.

Arkansas laws didn't require the ads to be counted as campaign contributions -- subject to the $2,000-per-race limits -- because the ads didn't expressly ask listeners to vote for Rutledge. Such ads often ask listeners to call the candidate and voice their approval, or call the opponent and voice their criticism over a particular issue.

Tucker said he plans to pull the portion of the bill that would name contributors, with the hope of re-introducing that issue in 2016. He'll continue this year with the amended bill targeting coordinated communications.

His goal in sponsoring the legislation, Tucker said, "was to close some loopholes we have on the books for campaign finance laws in Arkansas and attempt to protect the integrity of our election process."

Metro on 03/24/2015