Senator hopes seventh time a charm for bill requiring disclosure of spending, donors, ‘dark money’ groups
State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue wants the state to seek its share of federal energy conservation funds. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — For at least the seventh time, a state senator asked for advancement of a bill to require reporting of expenditures by independent, “dark money” groups that flood voters with mostly negative political attacks.
On Thursday, State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue pleaded with the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee to at least advance such a bill for debate by the full Legislature — something that has never happened.
Afterward, she said she thinks her proposal this year, Legislative Bill 9, might have a shot.
“People have grown sick and tired of the negative ads and no accountability,” Blood said.
Would require donor disclosure
Blood’s proposal, LB 9, like bills in the past, would require independent groups that spend more than $1,000 on political ads, mailers or other “electioneering communication” to report their spending and disclose the donors who gave them money.
But LB 9 ran into opposition as a restriction on public debate by the ACLU of Nebraska, as well as the Nebraska chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit group that, as a 501(C)(4), doesn’t have to report its donors.
Jessica Shelburn of AFP, in a letter, said there is a long tradition of “anonymous writing on matters of public interest.” She said that disclosing donors, especially those who voice unpopular opinions, would subject them to “threats, intimidation and violence.”
“We should be making it easier, not harder, for people to participate in civic life,” Shelburn wrote.
The ACLU, also in written testimony, said LB 9 could “chill” protected speech and “discourage people from donating to causes they care about.”
Donors to “controversial causes” — such as abortion or religious rights — would be particularly vulnerable to harassment and retaliation, said Grant Friedman of ACLU of Nebraska.
Accountability sought, not free speech restrictions
Blood said her bill wasn’t about restricting free speech but rather was intended to inform citizens about who is sending out ads and mailers. She said allowing such “dark money” expenditures without identifying the source of the donations allows such independent groups, and their backers, to bend the truth with impunity.
“Voters are caught in a muddy storm of misinformation,” Blood told legislators.
Individuals and companies who donate to a political campaign are required to be identified, but independent groups, which are supposed to be disconnected with a candidate, do not.
For instance, one group ran negative TV ads against then-State Sen. Brett Lindstrom in his race for the GOP nomination for governor a year ago. Former Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts acknowledged that he helped finance the attack ads, even though, as a donor to an “independent” committee, that didn’t have to be disclosed.
‘Makes democracy look bad’
Jack Gould of Common Cause Nebraska, which has called for accountability of dark money expenditures, noted that he had to identify himself and provide his home address before offering his opinion at Thursday’s public hearing. That is unlike donors to such independent committees, he said.
“These dark money attacks just make democracy look bad,” Gould said.
The Government Committee took no action on LB 9 after the hearing. Because it has not been prioritized by a senator or a committee, the bill is unlikely to come up for debate this year even if it was advanced. But if it was voted out of the committee, it could be debated in 2024, which is an election year.
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