After big year for dark money, Blood proposes bill requiring donor disclosure

Opponents say the bill would make their donors targets

By: - January 9, 2023 5:45 am

(Getty Images)

OMAHA — Political donors spent more than $50 million on Nebraska’s state and local elections in 2022. But some spent more than campaign finance filings show.

They did so by funding “dark money” groups that don’t have to disclose their donors. These groups operate in a gray area of political fundraising.

One example: Former Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said he helped fund a group that ran negative TV ads against then-State Sen. Brett Lindstrom in the GOP primary race to succeed Ricketts.

Nebraskans might not have known who was behind the ads had Ricketts not acknowledged his donation. Disclosure was not required by law.

Carol Blood speaks to the Nebraska Examiner during her watch party in Omaha. (Jazari Kual/Nebraska Examiner)

State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue says the Legislature should change that. She has introduced Legislative Bill 9, which would force disclosures about issue-related, noncandidate spending that has been swamping Nebraska airwaves during races for governor, state legislature and local offices.

Blood said Friday that voters should be able to learn who spent money on a political race, so they can ask why. Blood and at least one former senator have brought similar proposals in the past, but they have been bottled up in committee. 

Blood said the lack of disclosure for dark-money donors diminishes the influence of small-dollar donors, the working people most directly affected by the policy decisions of state and local government.

“This is about accountability,” said Blood, the 2022 Democratic nominee for governor. “Right now, Nebraskans can’t find out until it’s too late who’s behind these attack ads.”

Blood and Jack Gould of Common Cause Nebraska said they understand that disclosure alone might not be enough to overcome the influence of dark money.

But, Gould said, disclosure would arm members of the public with the tools to weigh for themselves why someone is funding a particular political message against a candidate or initiative.

He offered the example of State Sen. John Lowe’s first legislative race in 2016. Outside groups hammered the Kearney senator’s foes for supporting a gas tax hike to repair rural roads, Gould said.

Gould said allowing “dark money” groups to do this gives wealthy people the ability to influence elections late in the cycle with little to no consequences for their preferred candidate.

“Generally, the people who run these sorts of attack ads don’t want to be identified,” Gould said.

Sandy Danek
Sandy Danek, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life.
(David Roberdeau/Modern Image)

Sandy Danek of Nebraska Right to Life said Friday that her anti-abortion group remains opposed to efforts to disclose its donors. Some donors, she said, prefer anonymity. 

Danek and the leaders of other issue groups such as Americans for Prosperity have testified against similar bills, arguing that disclosure risks running off supporters who own businesses.

“The effect of such disclosure has resulted in the harassment and intimidation of donors to groups that are disfavored by the media and the ‘cancel culture,'” Danek said.

Jessica Shelburn of Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group funded locally by the Ricketts and nationally by the Kochs, boosted candidates in Nebraska’s governor’s race and legislative races who support lower taxes and less regulation. Shelburn said government should be in the business of “making it easier, not harder” for people to participate.

She said LB 9’s new and potentially burdensome reporting requirements for organizations that engage in civic life would enable the harassment of donors based on their beliefs, limit discourse and undermine free speech.

Gould acknowledged that some folks might not want to face consequences for speech in the public square. But he said freedom of speech has never meant freedom from consequences. 

“People can say whatever they want,” he said. “The problem is people with money get to speak louder than people without it.”

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.