June 20, 2024

Surprise GOP campaign finance law proposal prompts walkout by Democratic senators • NC Newsline

This story has been updated.

In a surprise move that caught most Legislative Building watchers off-guard, Republican lawmakers unveiled legislation on Thursday that would make significant changes to state campaign finance law. The sudden move prompted all 20 Senate Democrats to walk out of the chamber in protest when the bill was quickly brought to a vote. It was approved 28-0 by the Republicans who remained on the Senate floor. The House is expected to take up the measure next week.

The proposed law changes, which were appended to a conference committee report on a controversial and much-debated bill dealing with punishment for unlawful protests and the wearing of masks (see the box below), would make it easier for big dollar donors to funnel large sums of cash in relative anonymity to support North Carolina political candidates.

Republicans said the proposal was merely designed to “level the playing field” with Democrats in response to a 2020 advisory opinion from the State Board of Elections that they said benefited the Democratic Governors Association, but Democratic legislators and good government groups decried both the substance of the proposal and the process used to bring it forward.

Complex but important changes

According to veteran campaign finance watchdog Bob Hall, the former longtime executive director of the group Democracy North Carolina, the changes are complex, but their impact will likely be significant.

Hall told NC Newsline that the proposed changes would provide wealthy individuals with new ways to give tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars to support a North Carolina candidate without their name being identified with the donation. The change would allow them to contribute to a national “527 committee” like the Republican Governors Association or Democratic Governors Association, which could then donate the money in its name to a party committee or “affiliated party committee” controlled by a state candidate without disclosing its true source.

Hall said that the change will incentivize politicians of both parties to create more front groups that launder large donations to a committee the politician controls. Meanwhile, Hall noted, the real source of the money will be buried in hundreds of pages of a PDF report and not filed with the North Carolina State Board of Elections until “weeks and weeks after the fact.”

The legislation contains additional changes that will limit disclosure requirements and make it harder for the State Board of Elections to review questionable contributions by repealing a provision in current law that requires federal committees to designate a “State resident assistant or deputy treasurer [who] shall be authorized to produce whatever records reflecting political activity in North Carolina the State Board of Elections deems necessary.”

Critics like Melissa Price Kromm of the advocacy group North Carolina For the People, were quick to note what they saw as the irony in the proposal being appended to a bill dealing with masks, since as Kromm put it on X, “the changes put a bigger MASK on the flow of money into NC politics.”

Hall also described Berger’s contention about leveling the playing field as “flat wrong.” Hall said that “the State Board of Elections’ advisory opinion reiterated previous directives under a Republican-controlled board. It blocks, rather than authorizes, a new way for federal committees to donate money to a candidate or state party committee. Berger is blowing smoke to further confuse what’s going on.”

Democratic walkout

In the aftermath of their walkout from the Senate chamber, Democratic senators gathered outside the Legisative Building to address the news media and blasted the legislation as an effort to help funnel campaign contributions to GOP gubernatorial candidate Mark Robinson.

Senate Democratic Whip, Jay Chaudhuri of Wake County, said the way in which the legislation arose – it was unveiled Thursday morning, never heard in a committee, and as part of a conference committee report, could not be amended – was indicative of its flaws. He called it “an eleventh-hour change.”

“Senate Democrats walked out today because this election bill literally allows convicted felons and millionaires to buy our coming elections,” he said. “We walked out today because it is critical we shine a light on a dark-of-night rushed process that will undermine our democratic process.”

“It’s no coincidence,” Chaudhuri said, “that such a rule change will be passed just two days after ads about Mark Robinson’s extreme abortion position started running.”

When asked about Berger’s contention that the changes merely correct an imbalance in current law, Chaudhuri pointed again to the lack of process and discussion.

“I mean, the process was rushed. We haven’t had a chance to read that advisory opinion. And certainly, our understanding is this allows for more undue influence of millionaires and convicted felons to give money to their candidates.”

Sen. Michael Garrett of Guilford County echoed Chaudhuri’s assessment.

“I think the process tells you a lot,” he said. “If we are really trying to make campaign finance stronger and strengthen it and increase transparency here at the General Assembly, we have a process that bills follow.”

While the Senate did not allow the proposal to receive a public review in a committee, the House has referred the conference report to the House Rules Committee, where it is expected to be taken up early next week.

In a statement, House Democratic leader Robert Reives made clear that his members would oppose the change.

“This new campaign finance legislation has never been seen before, but Republicans have attached it to an unrelated conference report that cannot be amended,” Reives said. “This eviscerates individual campaign finance limits and allows billionaires from out of state to funnel unlimited money into a committee. They are changing the rules in the middle of an election that is already underway in an attempt to buy the governor’s mansion in North Carolina.”

Click here to read the official UNC School of Government summaries of House Bill 237.

[Note: This post has been updated to more accurately characterize Bob Hall’s analysis of the legislation.]

 A mask compromise?

In addition to the last-minute campaign finance law changes, the conference committee report for House Bill 237 includes what sponsors are describing as a compromise on the subject of wearing masks in public.

Last month, the North Carolina House rejected controversial Senate amendments to the bill that would have, among other things, banned wearing masks in public, even for health reasons.

The new language unveiled on Thursday allows people to wear only “a medical or surgical grade masks” to prevent the spread of contagious disease. This exemption is narrower than the current, broad COVID-era exemption in state law.

The proposal also allows law enforcement officers to request people to remove their masks for identification purposes. Property owners can also request that people temporarily remove their masks for identification.

While welcoming of the change that removed the provision that would have completely banned the wearing of masks in public, critics of the bill like the ACLU of North Carolina still object to several other provisions. In a statement to Newsline, Liz Barber, the group’s Director of Policy and Advocacy said:

“Even though a health exception was added back in, H237 would allow police officers to stop anyone wearing a mask for any reason — or for no reason at all — raising serious 4th amendment concerns, said Liz Barber, Director of Policy & Advocacy. This bill will allow for even more targeting of Black and Brown communities by giving law enforcement the ability to stop anyone wearing a mask. This bill is part of an anti-democratic, nationwide trend to silence protests.”

The bill comes in the wake of protests that have erupted on college campuses across the country in response to the Israel-Hamas conflict. 

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