New bill pushes for more reporting of money spent during MN elections

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Some Minnesota lawmakers say groups that spend money to influence elections with little oversight should have to disclose more information about where that cash comes from and how it's used.

Rep. Paul Thissen, with the support of the House DFL lawmakers, on Thursday helped introduce what's been titled the DISCLOSE Act – a bill that would require more groups to publicly release how much money they're spending related to elections, how it's being used, and where it's coming from.

“Millions of dollars in campaign spending by special interest groups are drowning out the voices of ordinary Minnesotans who increasingly feel like their voice and their vote doesn’t matter," said Thissen, a DFLer from Bloomington and the House minority leader, said in an email news release.

Added lead author Rep. Laurie Halverson, a Democrat from Eagan: “The voters I talk to in my district – Democrats, Republicans and independents alike – are fed up with the amount of money pouring into legislative races from secretive outside groups."

The proposal is an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution – meaning voters would choose on a ballot whether it's added or not.

What this proposal would change

Right now, according to the Minnesota Constitution, "contributions and expenditures made to support or oppose candidates for state elective offices" must be disclosed.

This bill, Thissen says, addresses a specific state loophole regarding "issue-based" communications (also referred to as "electioneering" communications).

A Star Tribune editorial from 2014 explained this further, basically saying as long as the communication (a radio or TV ad, fliers, print ads, etc. etc.) doesn't say who to vote for, then the group behind it doesn't need to disclose its spending.

The example Thissen uses is the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, which he says sent "dozens of mailers" to voters in some of the most competitive races in 2014, and seemed to suggest supporting specific candidates.

What is the Minnesota Jobs Coalition?

On its site, the coalition says it is a "social welfare nonprofit ... dedicated to furthering policies that lead to job creation and a better economic future" in the state.

So the Minnesota Jobs Coalition – which doesn't mention supporting any candidates – was not legally required to report how much money it spent on those mailers, or other issue-based communications, nor did it have to reveal where that money came from, Thissen says.

MPR News dug into some of the coalition's spending and activities during the 2014 election cycle.

This type of spending is often referred to as "dark money" in politics – which the Sunlight Foundation breaks down even further here.

(One note: The Minnesota Jobs Coalition says it's affiliated with – though separate from – the Minnesota Jobs Coalition Legislative Fund, a political committee registered with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Disclosure Board because it sends money directly into candidate races.)

How does Thissen's proposal address this?

The language in the House DFLers' proposed constitutional amendment would say, in essence:

When any group puts out communication that a reasonable person would see as supporting or targeting a specific candidate, the group must disclose how much money it got, who that money came from, how much money it spent, and on what.

Whether to add a passage alike this to the Minnesota Constitution would be up to voters, since it's a constitutional amendment. But for this to be on the 2016 ballot (or any future ballot), the bill would have to be passed by the Minnesota House and Senate.

What kind of information can I look up right now?

There's already some information on money and Minnesota politics out there. It's available at the Campaign Finance and Disclosure Board website.

You can search for things like how much money a certain candidate has received, and who they got it from. Or you can go the other direction, and look at how much money an individual or lobbyist has contributed, and to whom.

For example, let's take a look at Gov. Mark Dayton and the 2014 election cycle.

At the time, contributions in the governor's race were limited to $4,000 for individuals, political committees, and political funds (that aren't political party units, such as the Minnesota DFL State Central Committee).

On that list, you can see that the state DFL political party unit gave $22,500 for Dayton's campaign. After that, there are a slew of $4,000 contributions, including from CEO of Delta Airlines Richard Anderson, and the governor's father, Bruce Dayton.

There are thousands of donors listed, with amounts going all the way down to $1.

This type of information is available for statewide elected offices, and also state lawmakers (so Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt, or Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, for example).

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