The state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board has delayed a vote on whether corporations that contribute to ballot measure campaigns have to disclose large individual donors.
The board is operating under an advisory it issued in 1997, saying corporations didn't have to disclose their donors when they give to ballot campaigns. But that's out-of-sync with other election reporting requirements. Those same corporations would have to disclose donors' names if they were giving to a political campaign, for example.
The board has repeatedly asked the Legislature for clarification — including this past session — but lawmakers have declined to weigh in on the matter.
Now, with an amendment banning same-sex marriage on the 2012 ballot, there's intense interest in the matter.
In a special hearing Tuesday, the board heard testimony from Minnesotans for Marriage, a group that supports the constitutional amendment. Under the proposed rule change, if Minnesotans for Marriage got a contribution of more than $5,000 from the Minnesota Family Council, the Minnesota Family Council would have to reveal the names of donors who gave $1000 or more as part of that contribution.
Such disclosure could lead to reprisals like the threats and vandalism that happened in California in 2008 over Proposition 8 — also a ban on same-sex marriage, said Tom Pritchard, executive director of the Minnesota Family Council.
"We're concerned that going forward and repealing the existing advisory opinion and forcing organizations like ours to make our donors public could have a chilling effect on political speech, free speech," Pritchard said.
Pritchard was unable to give board members any specific evidence of threats to his members.
But Mike Dean, the executive director of the non-profit watchdog group Common Cause, said the fears cited by the Family Council are not reason enough to keep donors secret from voters. He said exercising First Amendment rights of free speech doesn't protect someone from criticism or nasty phone calls. After the hearing, Dean said the public has a right to know who is trying to influence them.
"The attempt today was to ... close the loophole and require greater disclosure," Dean said.
Because both sides hope to use the amendment to spur voter turnout, Dean said contributions to ballot activity could have a broader impact on other races.
Board members didn't publicly say which way they're leaning on the issue. The board is comprised of four appointees from former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and two from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, who opposes the marriage amendment.
The board delayed a decision on the matter until its next meeting, June 30. That's just ahead of a potential government shutdown, when the board would likely go dark, since officials have been told their work is deemed non-essential.