Effort to protect identity of nonprofit donors passes amid charges it opens door to ‘dark money’ in state politics

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The nonprofit Mississippi Center for Public Policy says legislation it has advocated for to protect the identity of donors to nonprofit groups will have no impact on the state’s campaign finance laws.

Others are not so sure.

The legislation “will open the biggest loophole since we passed campaign finance disclosure in Mississippi,” said Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, who dealt with the campaign finance laws when he served in the Secretary of State’s office before being elected to the Legislature.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said he believes a bill to protect the identity of nonprofit donors will limit transparency. 

The bill has passed both chambers of the Republican-controlled Mississippi Legislature primarily along partisan lines and is now pending the signature of Gov. Phil Bryant.

Rep, Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, is the author of the bill and said it is not the intent of the legislation to circumvent the state’s campaign finance laws. He said the bill was proposed to him by the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, which calls itself the advocate “for real conservative ideas.”

“This bill does not in any way change existing campaign finance laws (see section 5),” said Jameson Taylor, vice president for policy for the Center for Public Policy. “It also does not change any law regarding nonprofit lobbying. All this bill does is allow a nonprofit that is being intimidated and bullied by the government to defend itself in state court.

“These protections are needed now more than ever so that people can donate to the causes and charities of their choice without being harassed for exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.”

Section 5 of the bill, as Taylor said, does specify that the legislation would not impact the state’s campaign finance laws. But Blount said that the nonprofit would say it is a certain type of 501(c) – a federal Internal Revenue Service designation – and simply say it is not subject to the campaign finance laws.

In the end it might be up to the federal courts to interpret the exact impact of the legislation if the governor signs it into law as expected.

Certain 501(c) nonprofit designations are allowed to participate in a limited amount of political speech, though, they cannot specifically endorse candidates, Blount said. Examples of these would be Planned Parenthood on the left and the National Rifle Association on the right. A nonprofit could be involved in the upcoming state elections later this year running ads praising or attacking candidates, Blount said. The bill would go into effect July 1.

According to the Secretary of State, state law says any “committee, party, club, association, political action committee, campaign committee, or other groups of persons or affiliated organizations” upon receiving or spending more than  $200 “for the purpose of influencing or attempting to influence the action of voters” must file campaign finance reports.

Larrison Campbell, Mississippi Today

Jameson Taylor, vice president for policy for the Mississippi Center for Public Policy

Taylor said the law is needed because in other states the names of donors to nonprofits have been released. He could cite no example of that happening in Mississippi, and it is not even clear which agency would have the names of the non profit donors.

“We need to make sure we are protecting donors privacy here in Mississippi,” Taylor said. “Whether you are on the left or the right people deserve the same protection.”

But Blount said he believes the bill will limit transparency to who is paying for campaign activities, and he said that is a bad thing.

“This bill will bring dark money to state politics just like what we have on the federal level,” he said.