NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Legislation to require more disclosure of money spent to influence elections sailed through a legislative committee Tuesday after House Speaker Cameron Sexton made a personal appearance to advocate for the reforms.
Among the provisions: The legislation would require additional reporting of contributions and expenditures in the 10 days before an election. It would make the officers of political action committees personally liable for paying penalties for violations of the law. And it would require candidates and officials to disclose more about their sources of income.
Still, faced with a conservative backlash, the committee bill did not include language that would have required so-called "dark money" groups to disclose who might be funding their messages praising or condemning candidates during their campaigns.
Related story: Battle brews in legislature over 'dark money'
"Members, what this bill does in totality, it's all about transparency and it's about accountability," Sexton, R-Crossville, told the House Local Government Committee.
"The voters of Tennessee, when you watch all different elections, they want more transparency in campaign finance. They want to know who's behind the money, how they're spending the money because they are trying to influence the election."
Sexton's team had faced blowback from conservative groups after drafting an amendment that would have required political nonprofits — what are known as 501(c)(4) organizations — to disclose both sources of money and expenditures on communications regarding any candidate in the 60 days before an election.
Those "dark money" groups have managed to avoid disclosure of their activities by using language that praises or condemns candidates without specifically urging people to vote for or against those candidates.
Under the committee's bill, only expenditures of more than $5,000 in the 60 days before an election would need to be reported, not the sources of the money.
Gary Humble, with the conservative group Tennessee Stands, argued afterward that the bill is unclear about exactly what kinds of expenditures would need to be reported.
Humble said he expected a lawsuit would be filed if the bill becomes law.
"This is an affront on free speech all the way around. And the fact that we have a Speaker of the House that's willing to sit on a committee and say that this has nothing to do with free speech is absurd."
Other provisions of the bill include:
- Members of the governor's cabinet would be included among those officials who are not allowed to receive consulting fees while in office.
- Annual financial reports by candidates and officials must be signed under penalty of perjury.
- Candidates would be prohibited from using forms that have pre-checked boxes authorizing recurring contributions.
- The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance would be required to hold a public meeting to accept settlements of penalties of more than $25,000.
- Tennessee's Advisory Committee on Open Government would be allowed to appoint two non-partisan members to the Registry of Election Finance; right now, all of the members are political appointees.
SPECIAL SECTION: Revealed
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