- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - South Dakota lawmakers are weighing major new state campaign finance rules that would force nonprofit advocacy groups to reveal top donors if the groups contribute significant sums of money to ballot measure campaigns.

The bill would require the disclosure of the 50 largest contributors to such groups - including labor organizations, business leagues and social welfare organizations - that give $25,000 or more in a year to a South Dakota ballot measure committee. House Speaker Mark Mickelson, who will pitch the bill Wednesday to a Senate panel, said that the identity of the messenger matters as much as the message.

“That’s the point of this bill,” said Mickelson, the legislation’s main sponsor. “Why are you afraid to have your name associated with your ideas?”

Current state law requires that ballot question committees publicly release the names of their donors. But, nonprofit advocacy groups that contribute to those committees are able to shield their contributors under South Dakota’s campaign finance regulations.

The new bill comes after an election season with 10 ballot questions that attracted millions of dollars from out-of-state groups, including dark money organizations, pouring into South Dakota initiative campaigns.

The plan also aims to impose the requirement on advocacy groups that spend more than $25,000 on independent expenditures within a year. Under the bill, if a top-50 contributor is an advocacy group, that organization would have to share its 50 largest donors.

But the bill’s disclosure provisions wouldn’t apply to 501(c)(3) charities, for-profit businesses and contributors who give less than $5,000.

Advocacy groups have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in dark money on candidate and ballot measure elections in recent years, said Paul S. Ryan, a vice president at the Washington watchdog group Common Cause, which opposes big money in politics.

“We need better disclosure of the donors, the true donors who are giving that money to the nonprofits to influence voters on Election Day,” Ryan said, calling the South Dakota bill “on the cutting edge of disclosure policy and law.”

Under the measure, groups would face fines if they didn’t comply, and they could be barred from contributing to ballot question campaigns or making independent expenditures for five years.

The bill has already passed through the state House with the support of Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard. But, top groups that have opposed the legislation include the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the South Dakota Retailers Association.

The National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action said in a recent post on its website that the bill “seeks to limit the free speech of organizations like the NRA unless they first disclose their members’ private information in the process.”

South Dakota residents have the right to support the causes that they believe in without the fear or harassment or retaliation, said Ben Lee, state director of Americans for Prosperity-South Dakota, another group against the bill. Lee said that if passed, the legislation would mean fewer ballot questions in South Dakota because people would be afraid of having their contributions disclosed.

“Transparency is for the government, and private citizens deserve privacy,” he said.

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