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My view: Shine light on partisan campaign funding

July 22, 2017

More than seven years since the landmark Citizens United ruling, we have experienced hundreds of millions of dollars in partisan political campaign spending from tax-exempt social welfare organizations. Unfortunately for voters, we usually have no idea where that money comes from, which means we don’t know who is trying to influence our vote.

I am trying to change that with legislation I introduced in Congress to shine light on these social welfare organizations and the money they raise to spend on political campaigns.

The New Mexico Legislature earlier this year passed similar legislation with bipartisan support, but Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the bill. Now, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver is addressing the issue through a rule to ensure we shine a light on dark-money spending while maintaining free speech protections. I support the secretary of state’s proposed rule, and I hope the New Mexico Legislature acts again to pass a strong bill with more transparency.

In the 2010 Citizens United ruling, the Supreme Court created a loophole that allowed tax-exempt social welfare organizations that previously were prohibited from engaging in political campaign activities despite not having to reveal their donors. These so-called 501(c)(4) groups are now spending on partisan political campaigns — not on their social welfare missions — all while keeping the sources of their funding in the dark.

Instead of working to promote social welfare causes such as early childhood education, environmental protection and veterans assistance, many of these groups are funding political attack ads while hiding the source of their donations.

The current system is broken, secretive and subject to abuse by organizations, donors and the government itself. Conservative groups do it, liberal groups do it, and it’s wrong. It needs to stop.

My bill would restrict social welfare groups from engaging in political campaign activities — the same standard that charities have to adhere to — and ensure that political campaign money is disclosed and kept separate from money spent for the promotion of social welfare. The Internal Revenue Service, not Congress, decided that these dark-money groups could claim they spend 49 percent of their time on social welfare purposes and exempt themselves from disclosure rules. Bureaucratic rules should not circumvent the original intent of federal law or interfere with the public’s ability to hold these organizations accountable.

Critics argue that they should be allowed to keep the names of their donors secret because disclosing their identities might prevent those people from donating to otherwise charitable causes. I would counter that donors should know how their contributions are being spent. And if their contributions are spent on political campaigns, their names should be disclosed, just like anyone else who contributes to a campaign. The American people also have the right to know who is behind the rhetoric that is being sold to them in the marketplace of ideas.

Similar rules in Texas have been upheld by courts in that state, despite lawsuits from special interests that made the same arguments being made by critics who are fighting New Mexico’s rule. Courts in Texas have sided with the Texas Ethics Commission, which argues it has the authority to require more disclosure.

This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It’s a good-government issue, and if we’re going to effectively address the influence of big money in politics, we must be as transparent as possible.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham of Albuquerque is running for governor of New Mexico.

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