Bold campaign spending rules in the spotlight

The warm reception afforded New York State Attorney General Eric Schniederman at the first of four public hearings on his newly proposed political contribution rules probably won’t carry over to court, where he and opponents agree they will likely duke out the specifics of the changes.

The new regulation,  which will require any nonprofit that spends $10,000 or more influencing state elections to disclose donor information for contributions higher than $100, was heralded nearly unanimously at the Tuesday hearing in lower Manhattan.

Three mayoral contenders — City Council speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, and former New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson — along with a cadre of good-government groups testified in support of the rules. Most repeated a single refrain: that the hundreds of millions in so-called “dark money” contributed to nonprofits for campaigning in the 2012 election season makes obvious the need for changes in state and federal campaign finance and disclosure laws.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, center, awaits testimony from seated mayoral candidates Christine Quinn and William Thompson. Photo: Curtis Skinner

But one speaker in attendance was not so pleased. Allen Dickerson, legal director of the Virginia-based advocacy group Center for Competitive Politics, a leader in campaign finance reform opponents was the only speaker to combat the regulation at the hearing. He asserted that disclosure regulations would be execessively onerous.

“The most likely outcome is that groups will refrain from speech, if speaking would result in providing the government with the functional equivalent of a membership list,” Dickerson testified. And that fear, he continued, could end up undermining government accountability.

“Elected officials will be able to govern without fear that the nonprofit world will be able to mount an effective, calibrated and timely response.”

Dickerson wouldn’t comment on the possibility of his center filing a lawsuit, at least not until the regulations were finalized. But he did say that it was “not unlikely” that someone would challenge Schneiderman’s regulations.

“I would not be surprised to see litigation over these rules if they are not amended,” he told The New York World in an email following the hearing.

Supporters of the regulations say they are confident that they would survive any legal challenge.

“Much of this would pass any court,” said Richard Briffault, the Joseph P. Chamberlain Professor of Legislation at Columbia Law School. Briffault testified in support of the regulation, and says the most ground-breaking provisions are requirements for disclosure of all contributions over $100, made in the six months leading up to an election. 

“The Attorney General is taking an aggressive approach,” he said. “It goes further than anyone else has. When you go further, you’re going to have to defend it.”

Shortly before leaving the hearing, Attorney General Schneiderman himself noted that he expected to defend these changes in court.

“There are definitely opponents of these changes,” he said half-jokingly. “And they’re a particularly litigious group.”

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