Dark Money in the South Carolina State House. What is it?
An effort to require so-called “dark money” political groups to reveal their donors hit a snag Tuesday when right-leaning advocacy groups asserted it would discourage S.C. residents from criticizing politicians.
A state Senate panel put off voting on the bill, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, after two hours of testimony – most of it from groups who said the Florence Republican’s proposal would set up their donors for retaliation.
“I’m prepared to accept the consequences of being out in public,” said Talbert Black Jr., president of S.C. Campaign for Liberty. “But there are many people who care deeply about issues in this state but don’t want their names out there, who fear for their jobs, who fear for their livelihood. … They should not be subject to that retaliation and intimidation.”
So-called “dark money” groups use donated money to push political issues or defeat candidates during elections but do not reveal the identities of their donors.
Critics say that means voters do not know the agenda or motives of the donors.
Last year, one of the dark-money groups, the S.C. branch of the Koch brothers-affiliated Americans for Prosperity anti-tax group, helped defeat a gas-tax hike by making robocalls into S.C. senators’ districts. Also, in last June’s primaries, several incumbent senators – including former Senate Judiciary chairman Larry Martin – were ousted, in part, because of dark-money spending.
“We are concerned about major donors with major efforts to influence what’s going on in our state,” said Lynn Teague, a vice president of the S.C. League of Women Voters. “Citizens need to know who is trying to influence their vote.”
But advocacy groups — including the Concerned Veterans for America, another Koch brothers-backed group and an AFP affiliate — contend Leatherman’s bill is unconstitutional and unfairly targets groups that primarily focus on legislative issues, not elections.
“It’s a serious thing to erode a constitutional right, and you ought only approach doing so with the greatest of trepidation,” said Ashley Landess, president of the small government S.C. Policy Council think tank.
State Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Clarendon, sparred with critics of the proposal throughout the hearing. He said S.C. residents who want to support a political group should “man up” and put their names on their donations. “They want to throw the stone and hide their hand,” Johnson said.
Leatherman’s bill’s would require political groups to disclose the names, addresses and employers of donors who contribute more than $1,000. It also would require the groups to disclose how they spend money.
The bill would not limit the dollar amount of donations.