Thursday, July 25, 2024

‘This came from some political operatives:’ Critics raise questions about last-minute campaign finance overhaul

A surprise amendment attached to an unrelated bill would bring significant changes to state campaign finance law, raising questions about who drafted the text and why it was pushed through without public debate in the middle of an election season. (Courtesy General Assembly)

NORTH CAROLINA — A surprise amendment attached to an unrelated bill would bring significant changes to state campaign finance law, raising questions about who drafted the text and why it was pushed through without public debate in the middle of an election season.

READ MORE: Protest bill, to criminalize mask-wearing for health reasons, passes Senate committee

House Bill 237 — formerly known as “Unmasking Mobs and Criminals” — increases penalties on protestors who commit crimes while wearing masks and makes it illegal for them to block roadways.

The original bill drew pushback for repealing a pandemic-era law allowing people to wear masks in public for health reasons. Republican lawmakers removed the controversial provision from the final bill, but included sweeping changes to the state’s campaign finance laws.

The amendment diminishes disclosure requirements for 527 committees — an IRS designated entity for political activity — and removes restrictions on parties’ ability to distribute corporate donations to candidates.  

On Thursday, the bill’s title was changed to “Various Criminal and Election Law Changes” and passed the Senate 28-0 on party lines. Democrats walked out of the chamber in protest. 

Melissa Price Kromm, executive director of nonprofit NC For the People, believes the change would increase the influence of big-money donors on the democratic process and reduce accountability.

“Clearly this came from some political operatives trying to create a money laundering scheme in North Carolina,” she told Port City Daily.

Kromm was in the General Assembly building when the campaign finance amendment was introduced. She said legislative drafting staff did not know where the amendment language came from.

She noted the amendment came after a closed-door conference meeting of six-appointed legislators, including: 

  • Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick)
  • Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell)
  • Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston)
  • Rep. Erin Paré (R-Wake)
  • Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry)
  • Rep. Brian Biggs (R-Randolph)

Senate president Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore argued the amendment would increase fairness between two parties with different methods of handling contributions. The Democratic Governors Association separates corporate and labor union donations, allowing it to distribute union funds to candidates. The Republican Governors Association does not separate the sources, limiting its options for political spending under current law.

Ann Webb, policy director of nonprofit Common Cause, disagreed with the General Assembly leaders. She noted the North Carolina State Board of Elections was not informed of the amendment and may have difficulty adjusting to sudden changes.

“I think there’s serious concerns as to whether there is going to be sufficient oversight over campaign finance with some of these changes,” she told PCD.

Webb did not know who wrote the amendment, noting it could have been a party attorney. New Hanover County Rep. Deb Butler (D-New Hanover) was similarly unaware of its origin, but viewed the provision as part of a broader pattern of out-of-state influence on North Carolina politics.

“These characters aren’t sitting around dreaming this stuff up,” she said.

Several prominent national organizations have worked to reform the state’s campaign finance laws in recent years, including the American Legislative Exchange Council and People United for Privacy. Both are part of the State Policy Network, a group of corporate-funded think tanks focused on influencing state policy. 

In a 2012 post-election report, the Republican National Committee encouraged ALEC and the Republican State Legislative Committee to develop model statutes to reform state campaign finance laws. The RNC stated draft legislation should be replicable across states and needed to make “political speech more robust at the state and local level.”

The Personal Privacy Protection Act, a bill modeled after an ALEC resolution, was introduced in over 20 states including North Carolina. The bill would have prohibited disclosures regarding donor information for 501(c) nonprofits, including entities commonly used for political spending, but was vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper.

ALEC’s model bills also include a resolution in support of Citizens United — the landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision removing limits on campaign donations by corporations and other entities — and a bill to block public financing of elections.

At least four of the six conference committee members who introduced the campaign finance text are affiliated with the organization, including Ralph Hise, chair of the Redistricting and Elections Committee. Hise settled a nearly two year-long campaign finance violation investigation with the NCSBE for $4,500 in 2018.

Butler and other critics argue the amendment is meant to boost funding for gubernatorial candidate Mark Robinson, who is also facing an NCSBE campaign finance investigation stemming from a 2021 complaint by veteran reporter Bob Hall.


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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