PROVIDENCE – Common Cause Director John Marion, a government watchdog and frequent critic of the General Assembly, found himself standing with Gov. Chafee and legislative leaders at the Statehouse Thursday, hailing what he called “a big improvement” in the state’s campaign finance laws.
The Transparency in Political Spending (TIPS) Act would require full disclosure of political expenditures and donations that until now have been allowed to be shrouded in secrecy. Officials said in particular it would shine light this year on people and organizations who will be on either side of the casino referendum and other bond issues. It would also address so-called “Super PACs” — groups designed to raise and spend sometimes huge amount of money for political activities.
The legislation, which was scheduled to be introduced Thursday, technically the deadline for proposing most new bills in both the House and Senate, was painted by its proponents as an answer to the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which allowed unlimited political contributions by corporations, labor unions and other groups.
“This is good stuff,” Marion told The Call. “This is right on the cutting edge.”
“These are shifting sands right now,” Marion continued. “This part of the law is literally changing every month since the Citizens United decision and because it is changing so fast, our law is just as quickly showing its age. This really does bring part of our law up to speed.”
The proposed legislation, introduced by Rep. Chris Blazejewski and Sen. Juan Pichardo, both Providence Democrats, does have limitations, however. For one, it would not cover federal races, such as the April presidential primary or the upcoming Senate and Congressional elections, which are governed by the Federal Elections Commission. It would also not regulate individuals and groups who support or oppose specific candidates for statewide office, nor would it be relevant to “issue advocacy” efforts, such as the Engage RI group that supported last year’s pension reform and did not disclose the sources of its money.
Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed said that, because of the legislative deadline, the bill’s language was still being finalized by the Legislative Counsel’s office and was not available to reporters Thursday.
“Rhode Islanders deserve to know where the money is coming from when our airwaves are flooded with political messages and the Transparency in Political Spending Act provides that disclosure,” House Speaker Gordon Fox said. “The development of Super PACs present new challenges in terms of transparency in the vast amount of funding that is spent on elections,”. “Our state laws governing election funding need to be updated to reflect the developments. Super PACs are political beasts and as such should be subject to the same kind of financial disclosure laws as campaign s themselves.”
Fox said that at a time when information “and misinformation” move at the speed of light, those who have the resources to spread their message have the power to dominate the debate. “What this bill will do is pull back that curtain so that the public can see whose deep pockets are behind such efforts,” he added.
Fox, however, rejected the notion of taking campaign reform one step further and banning political fundraisers while the General Assembly is in session.
“That may not be real reform,” Fox asserted. “So what, you just spike all the donations before or after the session. I don’t think that will get to the crux of the problem.
“I don’t like raising money,” Fox said, “but it is a necessary evil.
Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed declared “it is certainly a hallmark of our great nation that individuals have the opportunity to speak freely and participate in the electoral process, however their right to speak must be coupled with transparency. We have seen, not just at the national level, but in Rhode Island a trend that every year grows a little greater where undisclosed parties contribute to third parties and mailers are done, commercials are made and there is no requirement in the law right now for disclosure.”
Paiva Weed drew chuckles by citing political satirist Stephen Colbert’s effort to draw attention to Super PACs by creating one of his own: Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.
Chafee who has made fighting corruption the C in his ABCs of good government and economic development, said, “Total transparency I think is good for outsiders looking at Rhode Island and saying, “here is a state that is open and you can see who is contributing in what kind of campaign.” The governor said transparency in elections “is a big part of growing jobs in Rhode Island.”