Sometimes legislation that seems minor — even a simple matter of closing unintended loopholes — provides the most clear picture into elected officials’ understanding (rather, misunderstanding) of civil rights. H7147 is such a bill, and no legislator who sponsors, votes for, or otherwise approves of the bill should hold public office.
The legislation builds on General Law 17-25-7, which is already, I’d argue, an unconstitutional attack on the rights of citizens to engage in political activity, bringing it well across the line of disrespect for those rights. That statute is part of Rhode Island’s campaign finance law, requiring candidates, political parties, and political action committees to keep records of their donations and expenditures and report any that are larger than $100. In a recent legislative session, the General Assembly and Governor Lincoln Chafee expanded it to include local ballot questions — that is, direct democracy.
Last spring, when the state’s campaign finance bureaucracy took the initiative to harass me based on the law, I explained as follows:
A group of town residents gets together to persuade their neighbors to vote for lower taxes at the local level. They spend hours generating information to persuade and hours walking streets talking with people in the community and delivering literature. They ask some friends for help covering the costs of things like printing and postage.
If you think this group of people ought to have to register with some bureaucrat in the state government and file reports about donations and expenditures, you do not believe in freedom of speech or freedom, generally. You believe in tyranny, even if it’s only petty for the time being. You believe in making it more difficult for the average citizen to affect his or her government and disadvantaging them in their fight against special interests and government insiders and ensuring that people on the government payroll (one way or another) are able to undermine any advantage that citizens might find.
Last session identical legislation to H7147 passed the Rhode Island House as H6290A but fell away in a Senate committee. What it does is to specify that any entity organized in any way or even a single person is required to file reports “every seven days” if it, he, or she spends more than $100 on local ballot questions within a whole year. Basically, anybody who does more than put out a couple of yard signs will have to register and file regular reports. This is nothing other than the final brick in a wall against grassroots activity.
Given the prime sponsors of the legislation — Democrats John “Jay” Edwards and Dennis Canario of the East Bay — it’s probable that I’m the “person” being targeted, here, based on my activities with Tiverton budgets. (Such targeting using state-level law shows the degree of petty tyranny involved.) The argument from those losing the votes locally is that my friends and I couldn’t possibly get Tiverton residents to vote to have less money confiscated from their bank accounts without some secret flow of money tipping the scales.
The unstated purpose, though, to which several of us can attest locally, is to make sure that nobody is out of reach of gossip, anonymous personal attacks on the Internet, or other attempts to intimidate and exclude people from their own community if they dare to challenge powerful insiders and special interests. They want to stop people who aren’t already politically connected from being able to inform voters about alternatives to taxes and policies supported by the likes of John Edwards, Dennis Canario, Mary Messier, Joy Hearn, and Brian Newberry, which means, ultimately, that they want voters to be uninformed and vulnerable to their scare tactics.