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Proposal Would Require PACs to Disclose Major Donors

The staff of the Maine Ethics Commission is trying to shine more light on the organizations fueling an explosion in the amount of money spent to influence state political races and ballot questions.

Commission staff are proposing to require organizations that make major donations to political committees to provide more information about their own finances.

Under current law, an organization that donates to a political committee only has to disclose its name, address and what kind of organization it is — a nonprofit or a political action committee, for example. So to learn more about the organization, such as who funds it, you have to dig through tax filings or federal campaign finance reports.

Even that extra effort may not produce any results, because some organizations are nonprofits, or limited liability companies, which are sometimes used by political groups to hide the identify of donors.

Jonathan Wayne, director of the Ethics Commission, says his staff’s proposal is designed to give the public a fighting chance in understanding who these groups are and why they’re attempting to persuade Maine voters.

“Sometimes these out-of-state organizations that are supporting or opposing our elections are spending large amounts to influence the elections. And we think the Maine public ought to know who they are,” he says.

Wayne says the proposed legislation requires groups that donate more than $100,000 to a party, political action committee or ballot question campaign to file a one-time report with the Commission. The report would contain information about the organization as well as its five largest sources of income during prior 12 months.

Failure to file the report could result in a fine of up to $50,000.

The proposal follows an explosion in spending by organizations that can spend unlimited amounts on state races. In 2014, for example, five out-of-state organizations donated more than $13 million to influence the race for governor and legislative contests. While spending by those groups was reported, the origin of the finances was either buried in federal tax filings or not available at all.

Wayne says the proposal is designed to put the information in one easy-to-access place for the public.

“If they’re a tax exempt organization, or they’re registered with another state, it’s not so easy to get detailed information about how these groups are — who are their officers, are they tax exempt or not, who their donors are. So this proposal tries to get these donors on record, with the state of Maine, in a convenient place for the public to find out more about them,” he says.

This past year, 13 organizations that donated over $14 million to Maine-based PACs would be affected by the new law. Of those, 11 sought to influence one of the record five citizen-initiated ballot question committees, which partially stemmed from the gridlock generated between Gov. Paul LePage and the divided Legislature.

One group, the New Approach PAC, donated over $2 million to the effort to legalize marijuana. The names of New Approach’s donors weren’t provided to the state, but an analysis of tax filings by Maine Public revealed that New Approach is funded by an eclectic group of wealthy donors from all over the country.

If the ethics staff’s proposal is approved, those donors would be listed with the state. The Ethics Commission will review the proposal during its Thursday meeting. If it’s approved, it would then go to the Legislature for consideration.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.