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House State Affairs Will Look Again at Dark Money

For House State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook, the bottom line is pretty clear on the question of whether the identity of political donors should be disclosed.

Republican State Reps.  Byron Cook (l), R-Corsicana, Burt Solomons (c), R-Carrollton, and Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, listen to a point of order on HB12 sanctuary cities bill on May 6, 2011.

For House State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook, the bottom line is pretty clear on whether the identity of political donors should be disclosed. It’s a transparency issue, the Corsicana Republican explained in an interview Thursday afternoon with the Tribune. The public has a right to know when money is going toward affecting political campaigns.

The Legislature last year took a stab at requiring disclosure from nonprofit groups, which have grown in importance with the rise of direct independent expenditures in political campaigns, of their big-dollar political donors.

The legislation passed both chambers but fell victim to the veto pen.

Cook’s committee will study the issue anew in an interim hearing on May 1 with invited testimony that Cook said would include experts with different perspectives on the First Amendment and constitutional law. The goal, he added, is to give the committee the information it will need to have solid recommendations on possible legislation next session.

“This issue deserves further comprehensive study and review so we can establish good policy in this area,” he said.

The issue of donor disclosure is also front and center in an ongoing investigation by the ethics commission into the conservative advocacy group Empower Texans and the group’s president, Michael Quinn Sullivan.

The group is battling in federal court subpoenas issued by the state agency seeking its communications detailing its political activity. Empower Texans claims that complying with the subpoenas would expose its donors to political intimidation. On Thursday, the ethics commission voted to withdraw those subpoenas and substitute what commissioners felt were more narrowly tailored requests. Their action was in response to U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks' description last month of the original subpoenas as “absurd” for how broadly they were drawn.

Empower Texans' attorney Joe Nixon's reaction at the hearing was that the new subpoenas didn't represent much of an improvement. Objections to the new subpoenas — which are surely expected — must be made before the ethics commission's next meeting in late May.

The ethics commission has also taken some initial steps toward establishing rules that would do what last year’s legislation intended — requiring nonprofits to disclose the identity of donors who are giving to support political activities.

Cook said he thought the ethics commission’s attention to the issue was “appropriate” because office seekers should know what the rules of engagement are.

Notification of the State Affairs meeting was made on Wednesday, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in McCutcheon v. FEC that knocked down another limit on campaign spending — this time a restriction on the total amount of money that can be spent on federal candidates and parties in a single election cycle.

The decision doesn’t have an immediate effect on Texas, which doesn’t limit how much anyone can spend on a campaign. But independent observers have pointed to this week’s decision as another example of a court that is highly skeptical of limits on campaign spending.

For Cook, the issue of the public’s confidence in the transparency of the political system is “incredibly important.”

“If we don’t address this, you’re likely to see a lot more 501(c)(4)’s set up for the specific purpose of hiding donors,” he said.

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