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Phoenix amendment requiring ID of dark money donors moves forward

(Kathy Cline/KTAR News

PHOENIX — Phoenix took a step toward prohibiting dark money in its elections.

The city’s Sustainability, Housing, Efficiency, and Neighborhoods subcommittee unanimously decided to move forward with a city-charter amendment requiring the identification of independent groups and donors in city elections, councilmember Kate Gallego said Tuesday.

“It’s an issue of the utmost importance,” Gallego said. “Voters need to know who is speaking to them – and why – so they can make informed decisions.”

If approved, the amendment will go before voters in November.

Phoenix would be the second Valley city to consider the question. In March, more than 90 percent of Tempe voters agreed to vote in November on a city-charter amendment.

That change requires all groups spending more than $1,000 on local races to disclose their donors and organization name. The “Sunshine Ordinance” is aimed to eliminate independent groups’ anonymous political spending – often dubbed “dark money” – in local elections.

“It’s something that is fundamental to democracy, and something that the (U.S.) Supreme Court actually encouraged state and local government when they passed ‘Citizens United’,” Gallego said. “People are welcome to speak but we ought to know who is speaking and why.”

In 2010, a conservative non-profit organization, “Citizens United,” wanted to air a film critical of Hillary Clinton on TV shortly before the 2008 Democratic primary election while Clinton was running for president.

Federal law, however, prohibited a corporation or labor union from creating an “electioneering communication,” which is a broadcast advertisement that reaches more than 50,000 people in the electorate within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of an election. Additionally, law prohibited the groups from spending on advocacy efforts for or against a candidate at any time.

The Supreme Court found these provisions of the law conflicted with the U.S. Constitution. However, the court did uphold requirements for public disclosure by sponsors of advertisements.

The case did not affect the federal ban on direct contributions from corporations or unions to candidate campaigns or political parties.

Regardless of the decision, former Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said he supports full disclosure of political donors’ names and amounts, no matter which party they support.

“I argued a case to the Arizona Supreme Court involving an attempt by the legislature to preempt a Tucson rule regarding elections,” Horne said. “The Supreme Court recognized that the Arizona constitution gives local governments power over local issues. And, the state legislature is not permitted to intervene on truly local matters.”

It’s not clear, however, whether a local ordinance would override state law.

On April 5, Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill banning local governments from requiring non-profits, the most common type of organization donating to political campaigns, to disclose their funding sources. Supporters say donors to political groups have a right to remain anonymous for fear of harassment.

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