Three provisions have been dropped from a campaign finance bill that would have required some political groups to say more about where their money is coming from and how it is being spent.
The language was dropped in the waning hours of the legislative session over Republican concerns, said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, and chief sponsor of the House legislation.
The GOP said it would withdraw support for a separate elections bill if the controversial disclosure provisions were preserved in conference committee, Winkler said. Gov. Mark Dayton said he would not sign the elections bill unless it had bipartisan support.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, who sat on the bill's conference committee, did not respond to a request for comment.
With the state's 2012 legislative races drawing an unprecedented amount of money from outside political groups, the state's Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board had asked the Legislature to give it new authority to get more information about where groups involved in elections are getting their money and how it is being spent.
"Those provisions were one of -- if not the board's highest -- priority," said Gary Goldsmith, Executive Director of the campaign finance board. "The rest of the bill is good. There are lots of good things in it, but we are really falling behind in keeping up with disclosure law."
The Senate version included the provisions sought by the board, but the House bill did not. They were stripped in committee over concerns from some groups that the new rules would inhibit free speech and have a chilling effect on donations.
Some of the discarded language centered on two types of political ads. The first are called issue ads, which may praise or criticize a candidate's stance on a certain issue, but don't explicitly tell the viewer to vote for or against the candidate. Unless the ad uses the words "vote for" or "vote against," the group paying for the ad doesn't have to disclose how it was financed. The bill would have changed that for some types of ads and mailers, as well as for some forms of "electioneering communication," which can include voter guides.
The board also asked the Legislature to give it more authority to collect donor information from nonprofit corporations that are spending independently on candidates or on ballot initiatives. Right now, such groups don't have to say anything about individual donors unless the group uses $1,000 or more from that donor for political purposes.
Winthrop & Weinstein lawyer John Knapp represents the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses, a group that includes the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership, among other business organizations.
He said his client opposed the provisions because they were ambiguous and because they could hinder free speech.
"We need all parties to express their opinions on candidates," Knapp said. "It's not a partisan issue at all. It's more of a First Amendment and free speech issue."
The Coalition of Minnesota Businesses is among the groups that sent fliers during last year's election that didn't advocate for one candidate over another, but spoke favorably of a candidate's record. Under the proposed rules, those types of ads could have required more disclosure.
Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life also opposed the provisions, arguing that even a fundraising letter to its members could merit further scrutiny.
Other parts of the campaign finance board's legislation proposal stayed intact in the conference committee report, including increases in candidate spending and donation limits. For instance, individual contributions to state lawmakers will increase from $600 to $1,000 over a two year period.
Winkler said the changes were necessary to stem the flow of money from third party political groups into campaigns. Low limits mean big dollar donors give their money to third party groups that spend on behalf of candidates.
As a result, "the candidate becomes relatively insignificant in their election," he said. "While I'd like to keep the limits low, I think it's a necessary adjustment in order to deal with the flood of outside money that's coming into races."
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who has long advocated for keeping campaign contribution and spending limits low, said the new caps are a bad idea.
"We're troubled by big money in politics, and our solution is to allow more big money into campaigns," he said.
Marty, who wrote Minnesota's law banning gifts from lobbyists, was dismayed by a separate provision added on the Senate floor that will allow corporations to provide lawmakers with food and beverages so long as they are served at an event that all legislators have been invited to in advance.
"I don't think the public is asking business and interest groups to give us more gifts," Marty said.