NC Republicans pass bill to let wealthy donors flood elections with cash

NC Republicans pass bill to let wealthy donors flood elections with cash

The North Carolina Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C., is seen, Wednesday, June 5, 2024. The state's General Assembly is made up of the North Carolina House of Representatives and the North Carolina Senate. (AP Photo/Makiya Seminera)

By Dylan Rhoney

June 13, 2024

North Carolina Republicans passed their controversial anti-masking bill on Tuesday, after adding a provision allowing the use of surgical masks for health reasons. However, a last-minute addition making changes to campaign finance law has drawn widespread criticism.

Republicans in the North Carolina House on Tuesday voted to pass a new version of their bill to ban public mask wearing, after adding an exception allowing the use of surgical masks for health reasons. But they also added an even more controversial element to an already contentious bill: a provision that could let wealthy donors secretly funnel tons of money into North Carolina politics without voters knowing who is trying to influence the state’s politics and elections.

The revised bill, which passed the state Senate last Thursday just minutes after being shared with Democrats, now heads to Gov. Roy Cooper, who opposes the campaign finance provision but has yet to indicate either way if he will veto the bill. 

Campaign finance changes

North Carolina law states that corporations and unions cannot contribute to campaigns, and therefore groups such as the Republican and Democratic Governors Associations (the RGA and  DGA), who take money from these entities, are unable to donate to state-level political party committees.

House Bill 237 would change this rule by requiring groups such as the RGA and DGA to create two separate accounts—one for contributions from corporate entities and one for donations from individuals—and allow campaign committees within North Carolina to take money from the accounts featuring contributions from individuals. Under the bill, the original donor’s identity also does not have to be initially disclosed, raising concerns about wealthy donors’ ability to flood campaigns with cash without voters knowing who is trying to influence the state’s politics and elections.

The changes made in HB 237 would allow groups such as the RGA or DGA to forgo completing a campaign finance report at the state level. However, they will still be required to complete federal campaign disclosure forms that reveal donors’ identities, though that may not occur until after the election takes place—a fact Democratic House Leader Robert Reives mentioned to Cardinal & Pine before Tuesday’s floor vote.  

“What this allows is an individual to launder campaign money and buy our elections, and there’s nothing we’re going to do about it,” he said.

As Popular Information noted, under HB 237, an individual could give the RGA $1 million, the RGA could then donate that same amount of money to the North Carolina Republican Party, which in turn, could then donate $1 million to Mark Robinson’s campaign for governor. While that initial contribution from the millionaire will eventually become public via campaign finance reports, because groups like the RGA receive millions of dollars in donations from countless donors, it will be virtually impossible to connect any contribution to the RGA to money being used by Robinson. 

Reives said that he believes this change is worse than the US Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission finding that corporations, nonprofits, labor unions, and other outside groups could spend unlimited sums of money on political campaigns.

Reives argued that corporations are at least responsive to boards, and potentially consumers, whereas a wealthy individual may not have any hesitation contributing large amounts of funds since there’s no accountability and no one to keep them in check. 

“If you’re an individual billionaire, and you’re 80 years old, and you just want to see a particular world order, who do you have to answer to?” he said.

Impact on the North Carolina Governor’s Election

Senate Republican leader Phil Berger and Republican State House Speaker Tim Moore defended the campaign finance change following last week’s Senate vote, saying that it was a way to “level the playing field” regarding money.

Berger and Moore both cited a 2020 advisory opinion by the North Carolina Board of Elections,  stating that federal groups that solicit corporate contributions cannot give directly to state parties, explaining to the group that it would be a violation of North Carolina law that prohibits corporate donations. However, that opinion also allowed the DGA to use one of its Federal Elections Commission (FEC) accounts to collect smaller donations below federal limits (currently $5,000 per year) and direct those contributions to state party committees. 

The DGA has two separate accounts with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) for donations, one which accepts unlimited funds, including from corporations and unions, and another from individuals whose donations fall under federal limit on contributions. The DGA used that second account to provide donations to state party committees.

Despite Berger and Moore’s claims that there were different sets of rules for Democrats and Republicans the RGA also could have followed suit, but chose not to, instead holding funds from corporations and individuals in the same account. 

Now, they’re on the verge of enacting a potentially massive change to how campaigns are funded in North Carolina just months before an election.

A way to help Mark Robinson

In fact, one motivation leading to this abrupt change in the law could be the upcoming election for governor between Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein and Robinson, who has only raised about half of the amount of money Stein has, and has only $4.5 million cash on hand, compared to Stein’s $12.7 million.

State Sen. Sydney Batch (D-Wake County) says that Republicans have only themselves to blame for nominating Robinson.

“If people don’t like your candidate, well, that’s on you. You should have chosen a different candidate. We have primaries, they had many candidates, but at the end of the day, Mark Robinson is the one they nominated for governor, and that is the bed you made,” she said.

Batch said that in enacting these changes just five months before the election, Republicans are attempting to help donors conceal their identities because Robinson is struggling to get donors to support his candidacy on the record. 

“I find it interesting that they’re changing the rules in the middle of the game because they said that they’re not getting as much money as they want. So they’re trying to handicap another candidate [Stein] that people want to give money to, and [are] proud to give to publicly, just so they can go ahead and raise more money in other ways.”

Reives expressed concern in his conversation with North Carolina that this type of legislation would go beyond North Carolina.

“If it passes here, you’ll have every southern state in the union doing this at some point,” he said.

When asked if he sees this as a potential “trial balloon” that could eventually make its way into the courts, and potentially the US Supreme Court, Reives said yes. 

“Easily, because you’ve already seen where the court’s going to lean on these issues. It’s the same way affirmative action was attacked, the same way diversity, equity, inclusion was attacked, the same way you attack all these issues is you get a court set that’s already inclined to support your position, and the next thing you know, the guardrails are off,” he said.

Major changes rushed through with little or no debate

The substance of the bill wasn’t the only thing Democrats took issue with. 

State Rep. Lindsey Prather (D-Buncombe County) criticized the rushed process of the legislation, which left Democratic lawmakers and other interested parties scrambling to review it in a timely manner.

“We deserve time, we deserve to digest language and legislation, we deserve access to legislation before it gets voted on. We deserve time to figure out how our constituents feel about these things. Purportedly, we are representing our constituents in that building, and how can we do that if they haven’t had time to view legislation either,” she told Cardinal & Pine.

Batch also criticized the rush job, noting how little time Republicans gave Democrats to review the massive changes to the bill.

“We got this bill on the floor, and saw it for the first time when we were supposed to vote on it. We recessed for twenty minutes. They gave us 20 minutes, and said let’s come back and vote,” Batch said. 

“There is no universe in which we should be passing major, major reforms with regards to campaign finance reform without having the ability to read it, to talk to attorneys.”

Author

  • Dylan Rhoney

    Dylan Rhoney is an App State grad from Morganton who is passionate about travel, politics, history, and all things North Carolina. He lives in Raleigh.

CATEGORIES: GOP ACCOUNTABILITY
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