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Minn. ballot push spending comes down to semantics

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Campaign-style ads that discuss the pros or cons of gay marriage but don't specifically mention a 2012 vote on a Minnesota constitutional amendment will require less disclosure about who's financing them, a state board determined Thursday.

State campaign finance regulators approved a two-tiered definition that governs what expenses are subject to disclosure of spending and contribution details. It could mean some financial information is shielded by creative wordsmiths in the debate over the ballot measure defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.

Under the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board's guidance, ads and other public communications that mention the pending 2012 vote will require routine accounting to regulators. But those that simply bring up the topic and remain silent on why won't be considered a ballot question expenditure.

The board has grappled since summer on how to shape enforcement guidelines around the contentious ballot campaign expected to spawn millions of dollars of activity on both sides.

Campaign finance board executive director Gary Goldsmith said regulators had decided to "err on the side of speech" in crafting the definition. It's rooted in past legal challenges on how campaign activity is governed, he said.

The definition gives groups room to make their point without financial disclosure as long as the communication "discusses an issue that is the subject of a ballot question that does not mention the ballot question that addresses the issue; does not mention voting on the issue; and otherwise does not indicate that people will be able to vote on the issue."

Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, said the definition will be easy to exploit.

"It has created a completely warped system," Dean said. "Minnesotans are now going to be in the dark on political spending in 2012 in regards to the constitutional amendment."

It was one of a series of actions the board took that complicate tracking of spending in the amendment debate. The source of underlying donations to groups who contribute to like-minded organizations may not be fully itemized as long as the transfers don't exceed $5,000. Even with larger rerouted contributions, there will be exceptions that could mask complete disclosure of the original source.

A spokesman for Minnesota for Marriage, which is pushing to adopt the constitutional amendment, had little to say about the board's decision. The group and its allies have flooded the campaign board with questions about various disclosure scenarios, which prompted some of Thursday's decisions.

"It's meaty," said Chuck Darrell, the Minnesota for Marriage spokesman. "We have to take some time to look at it."

A message left to Minnesotans United for All Families, which wants to defeat the amendment, wasn't immediately returned.  (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)