Bill to increase Idaho election finance transparency fails

The Associated Press//February 26, 2019

Bill to increase Idaho election finance transparency fails

The Associated Press//February 26, 2019

Legislation intended to make more public who is donating to candidates and political causes in Idaho has been put on hold after a diverse array of nonprofit groups on Friday complained it would force them to reveal donors who wished to remain anonymous.

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted 6-0 to hold onto the bill for possible amendments after Republican Sen. Patti Anne Lodge made the request not long after arguing in favor of the bill she sponsored. It’s not clear if the legislation will return this session.

The proposal was the result of work done by the Interim Campaign Finance Committee, which looked at Idaho’s campaign reporting laws last year.

“The public wants to know what’s happening in campaign finance,” Lodge said at the start of the hearing. “They are concerned about the lack of transparency and sunshine in our campaign process.”

But Right to Life of Idaho, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, the Idaho Freedom Foundation and others said the legislation could cause donations to dry up if the proposed legislation became law.

The groups said they were mainly concerned about a portion of the bill dealing with “electioneering communication,” which the bill defined as any paid communication to voters and involving a candidate or ballot measure.

Some of the concerns involved such things as a paid worker at a nonprofit making a post to social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, and if that could mean the group would have to make its donor list public.

“Idahoans should be allowed to support specific groups or positions without fear of harassment or retaliation from people who may disagree with them,” Kerry Uhlenkott of Right to Life of Idaho told the committee, noting making public the names of people donating to anti-abortion groups could open them up to harassment.

Amy Little, president of the Idaho Nonprofit Center that represents about 5,500 charitable nonprofit groups, also spoke against the measure.

She gave the example of a breast-cancer survivor who donated to Planned Parenthood specifically for mammograms for poor women but who didn’t want her name to be made public because she was Catholic. Under the proposed legislation, Little said, Planned Parenthood would have to make that donation public.

“The unintended consequence of that is not only is that donation not being made, but there are women who are not receiving the potentially life-saving screening,” Little said.

Kathy Griesmyer of the ACLU of Idaho also spoke against the legislation, noting in the particular how it expanded electioneering communication from March to November during a general election year.

“You’re certainly sweeping in legislative related timeframes, which could potentially censor or impact how a nonprofit organization decides to communicate, not only to its members but to the larger public about a purely policy related issue that it’s engaging in,” she said.

Fred Birnbaum of the Idaho Freedom Foundation said the legislation had what he called a low donor threshold of $250, and questioned why the legislation would be written to include all donors to a group even though not all of the donations involved election-related communications.

If an organization spends 1 percent of its money on electioneering communications, he said, “because you’ve given $250 during the calendar year, you’re swept into having your name disclosed.”

Ultimately, after nearly two hours of testimony, Lodge decided to ask the committee to hold the bill in committee until the Interim Campaign Finance Committee could meet to decide its next move. It’s not clear when that meeting might take place.

Earlier this week, the Senate State Affairs Committee sent to the full House another piece of legislation sponsored by Lodge requiring more thorough campaign finance reporting from candidates.