In advance of a 2012 vote on anti-gay marriage amendment to the state’s constitution, the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board will be examining its 1997 advisory opinion on nondisclosure with regards to corporations’ political spending on ballot initiatives. If the board revokes its previous opinion, corporations who donate funds either in support or against the constitutional amendment may be forced to reveal their spending records.
The Board held a preliminary hearing into the opinion yesterday in order to determine if it complies with the statutory regulations regarding campaign finance; after hearing arguments in favor of preserving the current nondisclosure position from various anti-gay marriage advocates, the board delayed making a final decision until its June 30 meeting.
Although the Board heard no testimony from critics of the constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, it has expressed doubts about the nondisclosure advisory opinion several times in the past when Minnesotans have voted on ballot initiatives. According to a report released by the Board on June 10, “an advisory opinion issued without a well-reasoned basis for its conclusions should not be allowed to stand merely because it has been in existence for a long period of time.”
But those in favor of upholding the nondisclosure precedent have substantial experience with these kinds of legal arguments. The coalition group “Minnesotans for Marriage,” who presented arguments at yesterday’s hearing, also includes the National Organization for Marriage, a nonprofit that is famous for supporting anti-gay-marriage laws and constitutional amendments around the nation. NOM proved to be instrumental in the 2009 campaign to overturn Maine’s same-sex marriage law by bringing in almost two thirds of the campaign funds and is now involved in a lawsuit in order to protect the name of its donors against the state’s disclosure laws.
The attorney representing NOM in that case, Josiah Neeley, served as the legal representative for “Minnesotans for Marriage” in the June 12 hearing before the Campaign Finance Board. An associate at the same firm that represented the defense in the 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case on campaign finance contributions, Neeley argued that corporations are “legal persons” and should not have to disclose their political contributions when it comes to ballot initiatives. “The text of a ballot initiative speaks for itself,” he said, and thus such a nondisclosure practice does not present the same danger of unduly influencing voters.
But Common Cause Minnesota executive director Mike Dean denied that corporate spending on ballot initiatives avoids corruption.
“I really think the public has a right to know about who’s funding this political speech,” Dean said. “One of the ways that we can prevent that corruption … is to bring campaign contributions into the sunlight.”
Full disclosure could also provide additional information that voters would need to make a decision on an initiative, particularly given that some predict this will be one of the most highly-funded ballot initiatives yet for Minnesota.
“Without the knowledge about who is making political speech, the public can’t evaluate the information or misinformation,” Dean said.
If the Campaign Finance Board does decide to revoke its previous opinion on the state’s disclosure laws at its June 20 meeting, Neeley stated that there is “a serious possibility of litigation” on the issue, although he did not comment as to whether or not “Minnesotans for Marriage” would be involved.