‘Dark money’ politics: transparency, intimidation? (TX)

If advocacy of a viewpoint isn’t enough to influence public policy, is discouraging advocacy of opposing views the next best thing? Transparency or intimidation? That is the crux of the debate as Thursday brought the Texas House State Affairs Committee hearing testimony on the topic of so-called “dark money,” funds given to politically active nonprofit organizations designated as 501(c)(4) under the current tax code.

Specifically at issue is what types of groups should be exempt from Election Code reporting requirements in order to make the political process optimally transparent.

Those who favor disclosure contend Texans should know who is funding political activities that attempt to influence how they vote. Those in opposition argue it as a means of discouraging donors, a point most readily illustrated with the resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich upon his $1,000 donation to a California anti-gay marriage campaign being made public.

The committee scheduled invited testimony only. While public hearings routinely provide a forum for citizens and other individuals or organizations knowledgeable or potentially impacted by an issue to give additional perspective, no such opportunity was offered.

The Associated Press reported that Texas Ethics Commission Chairman Jim Clancy testified though dark-money contributions have accounted for less than 2 percent of all political donations in Texas since 2010, their frequency has grown fast in recent months — and could continue to spike if disclosure rules aren’t changed.

In referencing a lack of caps on donation sizes and out-of-state contributions, Clancy termed transparency of who is making contributions as a “defense mechanism.”

The debate over certain political groups being required to disclose donors is nothing new. In 2013 with vetoing SB 346, a plan that called for stricter laws, Gov. Rick Perry said:

Freedom of association and freedom of speech are two of our most important rights enshrined in the Constitution. My fear is that SB 346 would have a chilling effect on both of those rights in our democratic political process. While regulation is necessary in the administration of Texas political finance laws, no regulation is tolerable that puts anyone’s participation at risk or that can be used by any government, organization or individual to intimidate those who choose to participate in our process through financial means.

At a time when our federal government is assaulting the rights of Americans by using the tools of government to squelch dissent it is unconscionable to expose more Texans to the risk of such harassment, regardless of political, organizational or party affiliation. I therefore veto SB 346.

Grassroots response

In response to Thursday’s hearing seemingly excluding testimony from groups that would be impacted by new disclosure requirements, a pre-hearing news conference was scheduled by a coalition of state grassroots organizations representing a wide range of social and fiscal issues.

The coalition of conservative leaders released the following statements regarding the unconstitutional efforts of the legislature and the Texas Ethics Commission:

Michael Quinn Sullivan, President of Empower Texans, said, “The TEC and Byron Cook have chosen to make Texas ground zero in a national effort to suppress speech. In doing so, they have chosen to join with the Obama administration and establishment liberals in violating the Constitution. We didn’t choose this fight, but we will win it.” Benjamin Barr, a nationally recognized expert on First Amendment and campaign finance issues, and counsel to Project Veritas and the Wyoming Liberty Group, said, “Dense and difficult to understand election laws drive citizens away from participating in politics and sharing their views with the public. All too often, this sort of bureaucratic red tape prevents citizen engagement–the very notion of self-governance our Republic was founded on.  The First Amendment applies with equal force in Texas and the state legislature would be well-advised not to ignore common constitutional pitfalls while pursuing reform.”

Jim Graham, Director of Texas Right to Life, said, “Those who support our public policy efforts and our many outreach programs should not fall prey to the overreaching tactics of government bureaucrats; these freedom-loving Texans should be free to support any non-profit charities just like they support their church or other ministries.  The TEC could target all our members as political donors. Advocacy organizations at any end of the political spectrum should be alarmed by TEC’s actions, which are hauntingly similar to the IRS currently targeting organizations that they found too influential.”

Tim Lambert, President of Texas Home School Coalition, said, “The federal judge called the Texas Ethics Commission’s subpoenas ‘absurd,’ and I would have to agree. SB 346 was clearly designed to hamstring conservative groups while allowing labor unions, which typically support liberal candidates, to be exempt. Virtually every 501(c) (4) at the Texas Capitol opposed this bill. Our organization has worked for three decades to protect parents from abusive and intrusive actions of state government, and we have no intention of allowing such abuse to take place.”

Cathie Adams, President of Texas Eagle Forum, said, “When both legislative chambers passed a bill that would unconstitutionally target Texas non-profit organizations for political retribution, it was commendable that Gov. Perry vetoed the bill, SB 346. In keeping with the real intention of political retribution, the Committee Chairman didn’t even invite testimony of the groups participating in this press conference. Political retribution is ugly. And I sure hope the courts will STOP the Ethics Commission’s targeting of non-profit groups that simply want to practice our freedom of expression.”

JoAnn Fleming, Executive Director, Grassroots America/We The People and two-term chairman of the Texas Legislature’s TEA Party Caucus Advisory Committee, said, “Because what “happens in Austin, no longer stays in Austin,” the political ruling class in both parties are gearing up to shut down dissent. Results of the last two primary election cycles have stunned the establishment because they see what happens when the folks back home find out what’s really been going on in the State Capitol. Squelching our “outside voices” is the establishment’s goal.  If they shut us up, they get to stay in power and keep their cronies feeding on the taxpayers’ dime.  We will simply fight them because fighting for freedom is what red-blooded Texans do.”

Jonathan Saenz, President of Texas Values, said, “The rights to freedom of association and freedom of speech are fundamental to a free society and should be preserved at all costs. Across the country, these constitutional rights are being assaulted by an activist government and its enablers that seek to silence and intimidate faith-based non-profits and their donors for opposing efforts to redefine marriage. We must reject attempts to bring these Obama IRS tactics to Texas that would punish those who support marriage and religious freedom.”

Click here for video of the news conference.

Click here to access video from the Texas House State Affairs Committee hearing.

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist and the editor of Watchdog Wire – Texas. As also a contributor at Raging Elephants Radio and News Radio 1400 KTEM, she writes and speaks on a variety of public policy topics. Lou Ann is the creator and online producer at Estate of Denial®, a website that addresses probate abuse via wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney as well as other taxpayer advocacy issues.

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