Some issue-based political ads are not subject to campaign disclosure laws, the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board has ruled.
The ruling comes in the case of ads that aired before last year's gubernatorial campaign calling for a constitutional vote on marriage.
Here's a quote from one of the ads: "Mark Dayton and Tom Horner want to impose gay marriage with no vote of the people. But Tom Emmer believes marriage is between one man and one woman. And Emmer says let the people the vote."
Common Cause complained to the Campaign Finance Board that the two groups behind the ad, the National Organization for Marriage and the Minnesota Family Council, engaged in lobbying and should have registered their activities with the state.
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Wednesday, the board issued two rulings throwing out the Common Cause complaints. The board wrote that since there were no active bills and the composition of the legislature hadn't been decided, it was "too remote and vague to constitute an attempt to influence legislative action." The ads also didn't trigger reporting requirements by using words like "vote for" or "vote against" a particular candidate.
Common Cause Executive Director Mike Dean says the rulings reveal a big grey area in Minnesota's campaign laws:
"What these are called are "sham issue ads" so if you don't say 'Vote Tom Emmer,' or 'Vote Against Tom Emmer,' you don't have to disclose that information to the campaign finance disclosure board," Dean said. "I think this ruling will allow more and more secret money to flow into Minnesota politics."
Invoices presented to the board showed the television and radio ads cost more than $700,000.
The end of the advertisement added the credit "paid for by the Minnesota Family Council and the National Organization for Marriage."
But that wasn't quite true.
In its investigation, the board learned that the Minnesota Family council hadn't put up any money for the ads. All the money came from the national group. But it's not against the law for someone or a group to claim to pay for an ad that they didn't. The board threw out the complaint against the Minnesota Family Council.
Applauding the decision was Chuck Darrell, communications director for the Family Council.
"What's really going on here is that oftentimes, campaign finance laws are used as bludgeons to silence or harass or intimidate people and also to draw off the resources of their opponents," Darrell said. "We're thankful that the board eventually dismissed the complaint, but it never should have gotten so far in the first place."
The ads calling for a public vote on a marriage amendment ran ahead of the 2010 election, which eventually handed Republicans control of the legislature. With the marriage issue now on the 2012 ballot, groups that lobby on ballot questions are subject to reporting requirements.