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Democrats on Thursday began filing a package of 11 proposed laws they said would increase transparency and ethics during state election campaigns.

The package, which would be considered in the regular legislative session starting Jan. 9, includes a previously failed bill to end anonymous spending on campaign ads.

State Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, introduced an altered version of a bill he attempted to pass in the 2015 regular session to limit "dark money" contributions for political campaign advertisements.

Dark money refers to contributions that pay for political advertisements, but in which the sources of the contribution are not disclosed because they are not made directly to a candidate. Candidates must disclose their contribution sources.

Tucker first proposed that groups buying political ads name their contributors after a Virginia-based firm spent $400,000 against an attorney in a 2014 Arkansas Supreme Court race.

Tucker's 2015 bill failed to get out of the House before Tucker amended the bill to remove the requirement of naming donors to ad-buying groups. An abbreviated version of the bill later died in the Senate.

Outside-group spending in two Supreme Court races earlier this year again drew concerns about "dark money" being spent on negative advertisements.

The campaigns of Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson and Little Rock attorney Clark Mason each outspent their respective opponents' campaigns on TV advertisements, but were dwarfed by the amount spent by nonaffiliated groups that ran ads targeting Goodson and Mason.

Both lost their campaigns, though Goodson, who was running for chief justice, will remain on the court in her current position as a justice.

If passed, Tucker's new bill aimed at ending "dark money" spending would require any group spending more than $1,000 on TV, radio, newspaper, online or other advertisements in a single race to disclose the names and addresses of its contributors.

If the group or individual gives through a bank account dedicated to political ad buys, then the contributor must disclose those who gave $100 or more to the account that year. If the group does not have a dedicated account, then it must disclose donors who gave at least $250.

Tucker said he included that provision over concerns from groups only partially aligned with politics who feared having to disclose their entire donor base.

"My response to that is any group that is sophisticated enough to create and distribute political advertising, then they are also sophisticated enough to create a segregated bank account," Tucker said. "My hope is that the nonsegregated account is never used, but it has to be there to prevent dark money groups from using it as an out."

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, as well as Republican leaders of House and Senate Judiciary committees and the Arkansas Bar Association, have supported replacing elections of Supreme Court justices with appointments.

Ending Supreme Court elections would require a constitutional amendment and approval from voters during a general election.

Tucker said that while he did not believe it was feasible that Arkansans would vote to limit their say in electing judges, he is undecided about ending Supreme Court elections and said the two plans are not mutually exclusive.

"This legislation applies to all state and local elections," Tucker said. "Even if the judiciary went to special elections this would still have a lot of application."

Another bill introduced by Tucker would end judicial immunity for judges convicted of taking a bribe, allowing parties in a lawsuit affected by the bribe to seek legal recourse. Two other bills would make public officials and candidates who get illegal benefits subject to the same felony penalties as if they had stolen the money.

Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, proposed a bill limiting prosecutors, judges and state officials to being connected to more than one political action committee.

More filings to round out the 11-bill package are expected on the Senate side, Leding and Tucker said. They said Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, was involved with introducing the bills in the upper house, but he could not be reached Thursday.

Tucker and House and Senate Democrats wanted to push campaign ethics bills during an April special legislative session on the state's private-option Medicaid expansion. However, Hutchinson declined to expand the scope of the session.

"That's understandable because you want to keep special sessions focused," Leding said. "Coming into the [regular] session we want to address this early."

A spokesman for Hutchinson said Thursday evening the governor had not yet reviewed the House bills, which were filed around 4 p.m.

Metro on 11/18/2016

Print Headline: Proposal filed to illuminate 'dark money'

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