Readers will be familiar with the assault on Rhode Islanders’ rights that Democrat Representative John “Jay” Edwards (Tiverton, Portsmouth) has ushered through the Rhode Island House for the second year in a row, currently numbered H7147, with a Senate companion bill, S2369, being heard tomorrow in the Senate Judiciary Committee. But the discussion on the legislation before the Rhode Island House passed it with only 11 representatives voting against it has broader relevance for Rhode Island voters because it made clear the tendency of legislators to vote for things that take away our rights without having any idea what they’re voting for.
The most glaring evidence of this blissful ignorance is that not a single legislator raised the most dramatic and most offensive aspect of the bill: that it applies campaign finance regulations on local politics at the level of the individual. Even when Democrat Representative Lauren Carson (Newport) expressed concerns that small, grassroots groups would not know that they had to file reports based on minimal ($101) expenditures, nobody mentioned that there doesn’t have to be a group organized in any way. (Carson voted “yea.”)
From the bill’s introduction, when Democrat Judiciary Chairman Cale Keable (Burrillville, Glocester) characterized it as a “hyper-local” effort “to shine some light on otherwise dark money that may be coming in perhaps from out of state,” anybody familiar with the origin of the bill would find much of the commentary laughable. The reality is that the bill is Edwards’s attempt to craft statewide law because he and his local friends in Tiverton believe a bizarre conspiracy that my taxpayer group is tapping into and not reporting national funds from a vast right-wing conspiracy that somehow takes an interest in one-or-two-percent differences in the budget of a town of 15,000 people.
With the first question about the bill, from Democrat Jared Nunes (Coventry, West Warwick), Edwards injected misinformation into the debate. Nunes asked whether the explicit inclusion of labor unions as “entities” to which the law would apply would mean that a union involved in a local ballot question would have to report all of the individual members who contributed to its campaign fund. Edwards’s response:
Absolutely not. The union itself would be required to report it, and if they gave it to a local organization that was actually managing their campaign, that organization and the union would both have to report the transaction. But the individuals who donate to these groups are not going to be declared. If I as an individual donate to this group that’s advocating, then if it’s over $100, just like all of our campaigns, it would have to be declared, but if I donate to another group, like a union, that contributes… it just goes after the entity that’s making the contribution.
When Nunes expanded to ask about non-profit 501c3 organizations, which are explicitly listed in the bill alongside unions, Edwards said:
I don’t believe 501c3s can make political contributions along this line, but if they were able to, the people who donate to those 501c3s would also be anonymous. What we’re trying to do, here, is that we’re trying to get the organizations to be more transparent. … If you have a local election, like we do in Tiverton, on a bond issue or a charter change, if there is a group, which we have in Tiverton, we have two different groups, and they are on either side of an issue, if I donate to them, as a person, and it’s over $100, they will have to declare that $100.
If I donate to a 501c3, and that group then in turn turns around and donates to one of these groups, my donation is completely anonymous. … The line is drawn when you give to another organization, then you become anonymous at that point.
The jumble here is pervasive. For one thing, this legislation is not like the law applying to candidates at the state level. Statewide candidate elections do not include independent expenditures by individuals, and groups can spend up to $1,000 without having to file any reports whatsoever. Edwards’s bill would make that threshold $100 for local ballot questions. That’s where the legislation becomes absurd, to the point of throwing a ridiculous political weapon into the hands of the Board of Elections.
I’ve already argued many of the relevant points. For instance, I don’t think Edwards is correct that the bill, as written, only requires disclosure of donors who give more than $100, but for a moment let’s assume he’s correct on that and think about it a little further. A group would have to file reports the moment its spending exceeds $100, and it would have to report any donation over $100. And an individual would have to report any expenditures over $100. So if my neighbor gives my group $101 toward a budget campaign, and that’s our only donation, one could argue that his donation was a campaign expense, so I’ll have to report his donation and my spending, and he’d have to report his donation as spending.
If this is the case, then a union or 501c3 (which can definitely become involved in issue campaigns at this very, very low level) would also have to report its donors. Otherwise, there would be no point to the whole exercise. A shadowy group that wants to smuggle money into the election could simply set itself up as two groups, one to receive the money, and one to spend it. Don’t forget that the whole excuse for the new legislation is that our savvy local group is already skirting the law.
This legislative absurdity grows directly out of the political absurdity of Edwards’s beliefs about what’s happening in our small town. As he goes on to explain:
This bill is aimed at bringing some light to what is right now a very dark election period in Tiverton. We have groups that take in thousands and thousands of dollars to influence campaigns in Tiverton, primarily against our budget, and to date, the Board of Elections has said consistently that they do not have to report, because they are under this. So we added language to make them have to report where the money is coming from. And we suspect that it’s not coming from Rhode Island. We can’t prove where it’s coming from; we have no idea. But this law, if they receive thousands of dollars like they will this election cycle, they will have to report.
… They have radio spots. They have robocalls. They’ve sent out mailers. They run active campaigns, and they’re not reporting anything.
Edwards’s diatribe is absolute nonsense. In fact, as I mentioned in this space last spring, Edwards successfully sicced the Board of Elections on me, even forwarding my tweets to its campaign finance enforcer, over campaign finance, and I filed all of the required reports, showing total donations of just a little over $1,000. There are not “thousands and thousands of dollars” in donations, let alone “tens of thousands” in spending, as Edwards later exaggerates. Anything additional is pure paranoid fantasy, and the truth is that we already report.
Again, according to the Board of Elections, a group spending more than $1,000 already has to file reports and disclose any donors who contribute to that cause in an amount over $100. That fact suggests to me that every assurance Edwards offered on the floor of the House might have been a simple lie. I’ll go into legal analysis tomorrow, but a reasonable (perhaps the most reasonable) interpretation of this language is that it would require individuals and organizations to report every donation and expenditure, no matter the size or the reason it was given.
Indeed, when Carson asks how small groups (or individuals, remember) are supposed to know that this law exists, Edwards once against betrays the fact that this legislation is purely a personal vendetta targeted at specific people he has in mind. Carson asks, “How would [a small group new to local politics] know that they now need to comply with this kind of a law?” Edwards responds:
Well, they’ve already complied [meaning the group in Tiverton]. They have reported their gross receipts, because they’re required to do that; they’ve reported their gross receipts under campaign finance, but that’s all they’ve reported.
Not only is that not true, but if the legislators were paying attention, they would have observed that this makes his entire stated rationale for the bill superfluous. As for Carson’s question, Edwards says “ignorance is no bar to filing,” meaning that it’s no excuse.
Anyone doubt that legislators who are called on to answer for bad consequences — intended or unintended — of this legislation will be too happy to rely on the ignorance that they so blissfully held during debate? Despite the intellectual contortions of the bill’s supporters and the obvious questions and facts that nobody voiced, almost every representative voted for this bill. The reality is that they don’t really care what it does. They’ve traded away their votes to House leadership and are just doing what they’re told to do so that they, too, can get their little pet bills that hurt us all for the sake of their petty power.