PROVIDENCE â Common Cause Director John Marion, a government watchdog and frequent critic of the General Assembly, found himself standing with Gov. Chafee and legislative leaders at the Statehouse Thursday, hailing what he called âa big improvementâ in the stateâs campaign finance laws.
The Transparency in Political Spending (TIPS) Act would require full disclosure of political expenditures and donations that until now have been allowed to be shrouded in secrecy. Officials said in particular it would shine light this year on people and organizations who will be on either side of the casino referendum and other bond issues. It would also address so-called âSuper PACsâ â groups designed to raise and spend sometimes huge amount of money for political activities.
The legislation, which was scheduled to be introduced Thursday, technically the deadline for proposing most new bills in both the House and Senate, was painted by its proponents as an answer to the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which allowed unlimited political contributions by corporations, labor unions and other groups.
âThis is good stuff,â Marion told The Call. âThis is right on the cutting edge.â
âThese are shifting sands right now,â Marion continued. âThis part of the law is literally changing every month since the Citizens United decision and because it is changing so fast, our law is just as quickly showing its age. This really does bring part of our law up to speed.â
The proposed legislation, introduced by Rep. Chris Blazejewski and Sen. Juan Pichardo, both Providence Democrats, does have limitations, however. For one, it would not cover federal races, such as the April presidential primary or the upcoming Senate and Congressional elections, which are governed by the Federal Elections Commission. It would also not regulate individuals and groups who support or oppose specific candidates for statewide office, nor would it be relevant to âissue advocacyâ efforts, such as the Engage RI group that supported last yearâs pension reform and did not disclose the sources of its money.
Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed said that, because of the legislative deadline, the billâs language was still being finalized by the Legislative Counselâs office and was not available to reporters Thursday.
âRhode Islanders deserve to know where the money is coming from when our airwaves are flooded with political messages and the Transparency in Political Spending Act provides that disclosure,â House Speaker Gordon Fox said. âThe development of Super PACs present new challenges in terms of transparency in the vast amount of funding that is spent on elections,â. âOur state laws governing election funding need to be updated to reflect the developments. Super PACs are political beasts and as such should be subject to the same kind of financial disclosure laws as campaign s themselves.â
Fox said that at a time when information âand misinformationâ move at the speed of light, those who have the resources to spread their message have the power to dominate the debate. âWhat this bill will do is pull back that curtain so that the public can see whose deep pockets are behind such efforts,â he added.
Fox, however, rejected the notion of taking campaign reform one step further and banning political fundraisers while the General Assembly is in session.
âThat may not be real reform,â Fox asserted. âSo what, you just spike all the donations before or after the session. I donât think that will get to the crux of the problem.
âI donât like raising money,â Fox said, âbut it is a necessary evil.
Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed declared âit is certainly a hallmark of our great nation that individuals have the opportunity to speak freely and participate in the electoral process, however their right to speak must be coupled with transparency. We have seen, not just at the national level, but in Rhode Island a trend that every year grows a little greater where undisclosed parties contribute to third parties and mailers are done, commercials are made and there is no requirement in the law right now for disclosure.â
Paiva Weed drew chuckles by citing political satirist Stephen Colbertâs effort to draw attention to Super PACs by creating one of his own: Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.
Chafee who has made fighting corruption the C in his ABCs of good government and economic development, said, âTotal transparency I think is good for outsiders looking at Rhode Island and saying, âhere is a state that is open and you can see who is contributing in what kind of campaign.â The governor said transparency in elections âis a big part of growing jobs in Rhode Island.â