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A Little Light in the Darkne$$?

A light could soon shine on "Dark Money" in Texas

By Mary Tuma, Fri., Aug. 29, 2014

A light could soon shine on "Dark Money" in Texas. Last week, the Texas Ethics Com­mission drafted a proposal outlining a plan to regulate clandestine campaign spending, potentially a major step for transparency concerning cloaked political funds.

The rule would force politically active nonprofits to disclose anonymous donors, if 25% or more of the organization's expenditures can be considered politically motivated. Nonprofits would also need to disclose donors if political contributions comprise more than 25% of their total contributions in a year. The newly proposed rule aims to determine if these secretive groups' "principal purpose" is political expenditures.

Under federal law, 501(c)(4)s can advertise to influence campaigns but are restricted from making direct candidate contributions. However, the groups don't have to disclose donors – hence the "dark money" label – a fact troublesome to campaign finance transparency advocates, especially amid increasingly lax campaign finance laws in the post-Citizens United landscape.

Legislative efforts to unveil nonprofit donors were stunted last year, when Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a Republican-authored bill that would have ensured that tax-exempt groups spending $25,000 or more on campaigning reveal any financial backers who donated $1,000 or more. Ironically, in his veto message, Perry cited an infringement on the democratic process and a chilling effect on political giving.

A bipartisan House committee revived the debate earlier this year, with most members calling on the TEC to implement a disclosure rule ahead of the 2015 session. The measure is opposed by groups like the right-wing Empower Texans, a staunch opponent of dark money disclosure rules and coincidentally, the state's highest-spending dark money organization and the subject of a TEC investigation for disclosure.

The rule is subject to public comment for 30 days. Unless substantive changes are made to the measure after citizen input (in which case, it will be reposted for public comment), the commission could vote on the proposal during its Oct. 2 meeting, said Natalia Ashley, TEC executive director.

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