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N.H. Legislators Reject Stronger Disclosure Laws

Concord — Legislative efforts to try to toughen up public disclosure requirements for issue advocacy groups appear on a slow boat to nowhere in the wake of committee actions last week.

Panels dealing with election laws in the Democratically controlled House of Representatives and Republican-led state Senate have turned thumbs down on the measures.

The Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee wants to kill its bill outright; the House Election Laws Committee is recommending a more polite recommendation of interim study, which in an election year translates to the same death penalty.

State Sen. David Pierce, D-Lebanon, said he was trying to close a loophole that allows a single-member entity that promotes the defeat of candidates or ballot measures to not have to register.

“If a flier or mailer is signed by a single entity, that is considered one person,” Pierce said. “Therefore, this group would not have to register as a political committee.”

That’s because the definition of a political committee is “two or more persons” in any organization.

But committee Chairman David Boutin, R-Manchester, said the measure was too broadly written and could even be extended to require filing by a group weighing in on a bond issue on a town election ballot.

“The bottom line is we are all in agreement that disclosure and transparency is absolutely important, but we need to make sure we are not killing people’s free speech rights,” Boutin said.

Clearly state election law requires reporting of spending by groups that on an issue mention a candidate or incumbent by name, Boutin continued.

But state election laws do not require disclosure by groups that are spending on issue advocacy alone that make no mention of anyone in or seeking elective office, he added.

Sen. Bette Lasky, D-Nashua, said she had agreed with Boutin about issue spending but she’s seen the impact these more secretive groups can have that go after candidates and do not report.

“We’re trying to get them out of the shadows,” Lasky said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, said she could not support the proposal because she was not certain it would solve a problem that exists today.

And Boutin agreed.

“I think we have a pretty well-crafted statute that covers what we want covered,” Boutin said.

Both measures left over from the 2013 session now go to the Legislature to be voted on early in 2014.

Meanwhile, Senate Republican leaders are likely going to try to pursue some changes in campaign finance, namely to raise the legal donor limits for all candidates.

Boutin has said in the past he wants to use a second, leftover bill not yet acted upon, SB 183, to raise how much donors can give from $10,000 to $14,000 in a primary and general election for those who agree to a voluntary state spending limit and $2,000 to $7,000 for those who don’t limit their spending.

This also would raise the voluntary spending limits for raises as well, such as for example, from $40,000 for an entire state Senate election to $100,000.

Independent groups played a major role in the 2012 state elections, with those attacking either Gov. Maggie Hassan or Republican nominee Ovide Lamontagne spending much more than the candidates did in that race.

A conservative political action committee, Citizens for a Better New Hampshire, spent $33,000 on mailings to try to defeat two dozen House Republican incumbents in the September 2012 primary.

New Hampshire Republicans for Freedom and Equality, financed by a single, New York hedge fund manager who supports same-sex marriage, spent more than $125,000 defending moderate GOP legislators.

All those efforts were reported to Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s office.