Commentary: Legislature should not hide dark money from us

March 29, 2021 4:00 am
The Tennessee Senate Chambers. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Tennessee Senate Chambers. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sometimes legislation bears little hint of its actual effect and significance.  Take the case of House Bill 0159 and its companion Senate Bill 1608 each currently working its way through our state legislature.  The sponsors, Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, and Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, call it the Personal Privacy Protection Act, but a better name might be ‘How Dare You Expose Our Dark Campaign Money.’

The bill prohibits public agencies from releasing personal information about a person’s involvement in a 501c (tax code lingo for a whole bunch of non-profits).  The bill summary explains it covers any list, record, roll, roster, or any other data compilation identifying a person as a member, supporter, volunteer, or donor of financial or non-financial support.

Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Of course, 501c organizations include labor, agricultural, and horticultural organizations, chambers of commerce, some recreational organizations, and non-profits operating as charities for advancing scientific, literary, social welfare, or educational purposes.  No, you didn’t miss any hue and cry from some horticultural organization worried about garden club public exposure.  The Friends of the Library are not up in arms about this matter.  This bill really is about democracy in darkness.

Many of the groups organized to influence our politics and elections, outside the realm of normal candidate and political party disclosure, incorporate under 501c, typically 501(c)4 (under a very broad definition of social welfare advocacy).  In our most recent election these have included liberal groups like Defending Democracy Together and conservative groups like Americans for Constitutional Liberty.  The 501(c)4 designation also covers Democratic-supporting groups like Future Forward USA, Priorities USA Action, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, as well as Republican-supporting American Action Network, One Nation, and America First Policies.

Dark money now is a routine part of gubernatorial campaigns, as well as spending to influence state legislative races.  At the federal level in the last election cycle dark money exceeded more than a billion dollars.  For many election cycles Republicans have received the lion’s share of this federal election money, but in 2020 that flipped strongly in the direction of Democrats.  Nevertheless, the Democratic majority in the U. S. Congress is pushing H. R. 1, the For the People Act.  It sets minimum election standards that would frustrate some of the voter suppression laws currently racing through Republican-dominated legislatures.  H. R. 1 also would require that any group spending more than $10,000 on political ads must disclose all donors of $10,000 or more.

Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution sets out right and duty of Congress to establish the times, places, and manner of elections for Senators and Representatives.  Thus, it should be a simple matter of federalism that Congress sets a floor of minimum election standards that states cannot fall below in setting up their individual procedures, and in respecting our vote as a civil right.

A bill sponsored by two Republican legislators prohibits public agencies from releasing personal information about a person’s involvement in a 501, which includes 501(c)4 “dark money” advocacy organizations.

Through extreme right-wing groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), bad legislation like the Williams/Bailey bill infect our body politic.  Our Tennessee legislators make exceptions for compelled provision of dark money donation information via things like court processes, but woe to the agency or agency employee who lets us know what’s going on with dark money via routine reports or, presumably, responses to open records requests.  The bill makes knowing disclosures a Class B misdemeanor with a fine of not less than $7,500 for intentional violation, and between $2,500 and $7,500 for civil injury for each violation.

Routinely I correct people who say our legislators are bought and paid for—but there are far too many who can be rented.  Information on who is renting whom and for how much would be very useful to an informed electorate.

There is nothing sacrosanct about the U. S. Senate filibuster.  It is a remnant of Jim Crow politics expanded under Mitch McConnell to serve even more repression of African American votes.  If it has to be modified or shattered to protect voting rights, so be it.  An additional benefit of passing the For the People Act would be shedding light into the dark money corners of our elections

Our Tennessee legislature GOP supermajority, left to its own devices, prefers the “mushroom growing” approach regarding voters and political money information—namely keep us in the dark and knee deep in manure.

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Mark Harmon
Mark Harmon

Mark D. Harmon is a professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee.