By PATRICK CONDON
ST. PAUL, Minn. – Minnesota campaign finance regulators are considering whether to require the disclosure of corporate donations to ballot initiatives in the run-up to next year’s general election, when voters will decide if the state constitution should define marriage as the right of only opposite-sex couples.
The Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board discussed the issue last week but delayed a decision until its meeting at the end of June. Under current practice, the board does not require disclosure of donations from corporate entities to ballot question campaigns.
The board’s executive director, Gary Goldsmith, said the current rules contradict tighter disclosure requirements for other business and nonprofit entities that make such donations. But conservative groups which back the marriage amendment said stricter reporting standards could discourage potential donors who fear retribution if their identities are revealed.
“We see an effort to change significant policy before the next election cycle,” said Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, one of the main groups that pushed to get the marriage amendment on the ballot. “We see the possibility for a chilling effect on political speech, and potential retaliation if individuals are identified as donors.”
Last month, the Legislature voted to put the marriage amendment on the November 2012 ballot. Voters will be asked if the state constitution should be amended to define marriage as between opposite-sex couples only, a prohibition that already exists in state law.
Advocates of greater transparency in political spending say there’s no reason donations to ballot campaigns should be exempt from the disclosure requirements that govern donations to candidates.
“Minnesota has a long history of supporting disclosure,” said Mike Dean, the executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, a campaign finance watchdog. “Openness and transparency in government is key to the functioning of our democracy.”
Prichard said donations to political candidates must be disclosed as a check on the donors’ political influence. But he said that doesn’t apply to ballot measure campaigns because they are decided by the electorate. Dean did concede that ballot questions typically attract impassioned subgroups of voters to the polls, and that this has the potential to influence the election of individual politicians.
Prichard said he thinks the Minnesota Family Council and its allies could receive fewer donations to their marriage amendment campaign if the tighter disclosure requirements are enacted. He pointed to allegations of harassment and vandalism against donors to anti-gay marriage campaigns in other states.
Josiah Neely, an Indiana attorney representing several of the pro-marriage amendment groups, said they would consider a legal challenge if the campaign board opts to tighten the disclosure requirements.