House Bill 5589 is being pushed heavily by House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, who has made the donor disclosure bill a priority this session.
The bill was crafted following Democratic party losses in the legislature during the 2016 election as a means to push back against anyone who helps fund independent expenditure groups. The groups are seen as a rival to political advocacy by labor unions in the state.
Aresimowicz, an employee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of the largest government unions, urged members of the government administration and elections committee to force “full disclosure of donors to 501(c) and 527 organizations.” The legislation would not affect labor unions which donate and campaign heavily for Democratic candidates both in Connecticut and nationally.
501(c) organizations are nonprofit groups that are exempt from federal income taxes because they act as charities or focus on educating the public on range of issues from religious rights to scientific education.
“I urge the committee to adopt the strongest disclosure methods possible, allowing the press, public and campaigns to find out exactly who is working to elect or defeat candidates.”
Independent expenditure organizations are able to offer opinions and support for political candidates outside of the candidate’s actual campaign. However, they are restricted from coordinating their efforts with a politicians campaign.
The obtusely complex legislation does not specify which nonprofit 501(c) organizations would be directly affected. It also requires disclosure of the donors to a nonprofit that may have donated money to an independent expenditure organization.
There is a broad consensus that donations to political campaigns should be disclosed. This bill seeks to expand what counts as a political donation to such an extent that it will include issue advocacy and other nonprofit activity.
Critics of the bill point out that one does not need to know the names of individual donors to know if they agree with a particular organization's position. They also claim it is a violation of free speech and First Amendment protections dating back to a U.S. Supreme Court decision protecting the NAACP's membership list from the segregationist Alabama state government.
The law has raised concerns about possible government and activist reprisals against people who support issue-advocacy groups. Organizations such as Planned Parenthood, Family Institute of Connecticut, Sandy Hook Promise or Connecticut Citizens Defense League would have to disclose the names of their supporters, which could then be accessed online.
Aresimowicz sees the bill as a challenge to the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, forcing the disclosure of nonprofit supporters was ruled unconstitutional by the same court in its 1958 Alabama v. NAACP decision.
Alabama tried to force the NAACP to disclose the names of their supporters. The Supreme Court ruled that such disclosure would open the organizations supporters to threats, harassment and possible violence.
The push by Connecticut Democrats for disclosing the names and addresses of people who support various causes comes during a time of increased political violence and activism.
Union funded organizations such as the Working Families Organization recently staged a bus tour through Greenwich stopping at various CEO’s homes to leave billion dollar “tax bills” on their driveways and even erected a giant inflatable pig outside the offices of AQR Asset Management.
If the bill passes, organizations that support or oppose hot-button social issues such as abortion, gay rights and gun rights may be forced to disclose their donors to public and political scrutiny.
In recent years, activists have targeted individuals and companies that employ individuals who have donated to these causes, making concern about online disclosure of private donor information particularly sensitive.
Democrats control the house by three votes but are tied with Republicans in the senate with the deciding vote going to Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman in the case of a tie.
Suzanne Bates, policy director for the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, fears the bill would discourage private citizens from engaging in political debate and violate individuals right to free speech.
“It is appropriate for government to be open and transparent – that is so we the people can monitor our government’s activities,” Bates wrote in her testimony before the finance committee.
“But the reverse is not true – government should not have the right to pry into an individual citizen’s private life or political views. Individuals should get to choose who learns about their beliefs and affiliations.”