North Dakota lawmakers toss bills to boost campaign finance transparency
One defeated proposal to clamp down on so-called dark money created unlikely allegiances between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.
BISMARCK — Despite increased Republican support for legislation targeting nebulous political spending, several bills to expand public reporting requirements for campaign finance groups in North Dakota have failed to advance.
In a 42-51 vote, the state House of Representatives on Wednesday, Feb. 15, killed House Bill 1500, which aimed to crack down on so-called dark money — campaign spending that comes from unknown sources.
State law allows campaign finance groups that classify themselves as “independent expenditure” filers to avoid disclosing their donors. The bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Schatz, R-New England, would have required the organizations to publicly divulge the “ultimate and true source” of the funds they use to buy political ads.
The proposal created unlikely allegiances between conservative Republicans, like Schatz, and liberal Democrats, like Fargo Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, who promoted nearly identical legislation in 2020.
When Democrats brought the same bill two years ago, every House Republican voted against it — even Schatz.
The change of heart for many conservative lawmakers came during the last election cycle when an independent expenditure filer known as the Brighter Future Alliance paid for attack ads targeting Schatz and five other Republican legislative candidates.
“The reason this bill was put up is to answer the question: Who’s trying to influence my vote? Schatz told the House on Wednesday. “The people of North Dakota want the dark money brought into the light.”
Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, said the House Judiciary Committee gave the bill a narrow “do-not-pass” recommendation because of concerns that it would violate the U.S. Constitution and punish free speech.
Roers Jones, an attorney, cited a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in 2010, Citizens United v. FEC, that cemented the right of people and businesses to make independent expenditures in political races.
The lawmaker added that Secretary of State Michael Howe opposed the bill since it would be hard to implement and could make his office vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits.
Rep. SuAnn Olson, R-Baldwin, rejected the idea that the bill would not be constitutional, citing a portion of the Citizens United decision that reads, “Disclaimer and disclosure requirements may burden the ability to speak, but they impose no ceiling on campaign-related activities… or prevent anyone from speaking.”
Last week, the Senate defeated similar legislation sponsored by Sen. Jeff Magrum, a Hazelton Republican who has been targeted by the Brighter Future Alliance.
Senators also shot down another one of Magrum’s bills that sought to require more public reporting from multicandidate committees, which must report their donor list but not their expenditures.
The vast majority of multicandidate committees registered in North Dakota are affiliated with a political party or a series of candidates, but the Dakota Leadership PAC, which derives nearly all of its funding from Gov. Doug Burgum, is a notable exception.
Burgum, a former tech executive, gave the Dakota Leadership PAC close to $1.4 million last year.
Magrum previously confirmed he brought the bill in response to the Dakota Leadership PAC, which supported his opponent last year.
Two bills that would require greater reporting from multicandidate committees are still alive. House Bills 1441 and 1529, both sponsored by Republicans, have yet to receive a vote on the chamber floor.