Nesiba Wants to Know Who’s Funding Petition Drives

Senator Reynold Nesiba (D-15/Sioux Falls) has a good idea: let’s require ballot question committees to tell us who’s funding their petition drives while they are petitioning!

“It would inform citizens so they would have some chance of knowing who is actually paying for a ballot committee’s work before they sign the petition,” said Democratic Sen. Reynold Nesiba, who helped lead a successful 2016 initiative to cap payday loan interest rates [“State Officials Open to Addressing Initiative Campaign Finance Gap,” AP via Pierre Capital Journal, 2017.10.15].

Reynold Nesiba

Sen. Reynold Nesiba

Under current state law (SDCL 12-27-22), statewide political committees—ballot question committees, candidates, PACs, and parties—only have to file one campaign finance report for an odd-numbered year. The deadline for year-end reports is the last Friday in January. That lax reporting requirement may be tolerable for candidates—we voters don’t have to take any action with respect to Billie Sutton, Marty Jackley, and Kristi Noem until next June—but ballot question committees are out seeking official voter action on petitions for months in odd-numbered years, and we don’t get to see who’s paying their circulators and office rent until almost three months after their petition deadline.

I’d love to know who’s funding the current initiative petition drives right now. I’d love to know before I sign any petition. The Governor apparently feels similarly:

Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s chief of staff, Tony Venhuizen, said in an email that the governor hasn’t reviewed a bill on the topic, but “thinks the argument for this makes sense” [AP via PCJ, 2017.10.15].

Speaker G. Mark Mickelson (R-13/Sioux Falls) is running a whole petition drive of his own on the complaint that he doesn’t like out-of-state money in ballot question campaigns, so I would think he’d jump at the chance to co-sponsor his neighbor Reynold’s idea. But he sounds oddly lukewarm about this move for transparency:

House Speaker Mark Mickelson said he has no objections to addressing the issue, but said it’s not at the top of his list of desired changes to the ballot measure process [AP via PCJ, 2017.10.15].

What? Mickelson complains about out-of-state money but doesn’t add revealing that out-of-state money during petition circulation to his list of priorities? Is Mickelson himself hesitating to make the funding sources for his petition drives public?

Senator Nesiba will want to think about the timeframe for reporting. The point is to give voters information before they take action. During election years, we require candidates to report everything they’ve taken in and spent up to twenty days before we vote. Given that more people are voting early, we might want to consider requiring more reports from candidates, perhaps one report fifty days before the election (five days before early voting begins).

Ballot question committees may start collecting signatures as early as two years before the election for which they are seeking ballot access. Most initiative drives don’t hit the streets until summer, but this year, some initiative petitioners got going in April, and referendum drives will always happen in the spring. I suggest three new campaign finance reporting times for ballot question committees in odd-numbered years:

  • May 15, midway through the referendum circulation period (and close to the reporting date referendum committees must observe in even-numbered years).
  • August 15, right in the thick of fair season, when petitioners often do lots of business with those summer-ending crowds.
  • October 1, before the final, intense month of signature gathering.

Then again, since a number of ballot question committees get their main funding from one or a few big donors, perhaps Senator Nesiba should consider a simpler statutory scheme: subject all ballot question committee donations over $500 to the supplemental reporting requirement in SDCL 12-27-28. Candidates, PACs, and parties receiving $500+ donations within twenty days of an election have to report such big checks within 48 hours. Why not subject ballot question committees to that 48-hour reporting requirement whenever they are actively seeking voter signatures on their petitions?

When petitioners ask for our signatures, we should know who’s paying them to ask. Let’s support Senator Nesiba’s proposal and bring more transparency to campaign finance for ballot questions.

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  1. It’s just common sense to require more disclosure. I was involved on a good number of petitioning efforts, and our side never objected to disclosure. We wanted it. We went beyond what the law required. Our finances were totally transparent. But I would also require that disclosure for groups who are opposing petitioning, because a lot of that activity is going on at the same time as people are out there petitioning, and even before that, as they secretly lobby the AG for specific language.

    In all its efforts to clog up and discourage the initiative process through a lot of useless bureaucracy, the Legislature has vastly increased the need for ballot question committees and sponsors (and opponents) to bulk up. In the 1990s all you needed was 50-100 volunteers and go at it. Now you have to have a political organization set up before you even collect the first signature, and a lot of the signatures are collected by paid collectors. That was exactly the result we warned about back in the 1990s when some of the usual suspects started lobbying for restrictions on the initiative. But in their infinite wisdom, the Legislature caved to the special interests in the 2000s, and created this mess of a system you are stuck with, unless someone has the courage to take all of this to court.

    Mickelson’s little initiative sounds great, but do you think the Supreme Court is ever going to retract 40 years of legal findings that, if not exactly on point, are clear to anyone who bothers to look at it. Mickelson is just wasting time, and being a complete hypocrite, and he knows it. Still, I would sign that petition, and then seek to extend it to candidates. Stick it right back up his arse.

    e, all of the up-front spending wouldn’t be needed if

  2. Good point, Donald, about making reporting reqs equal for opponent committees, who, as we saw in 2015, were sending jammers out to harass legitimate petitioners circulating the initiative texts they didn’t like.

    Curious, Donald (and I know this question will sound redundnat, but): which specific requirements made it harder to collect signatures with a purely volunteer team?

  3. My oh we know who belongs to the Koch bros. USA ran an article why disclosing donors would be bad. Will post the article later, but basically a list in SD would allow the Koch’s to terrorize possible donors. Transparency and SD is a joke when it comes to legislators. Worst state of 50.

  4. Wow no wonder Dems lose so bad in this state – You do realize those lists are legally a violation of the first amendment- Why the heck do you all hand over your rights so easily and say what else can I do to screw myself ?

  5. Robin, strange you feel the need to turn this into a Dem/GOP issue. Every law we’re talking about was most likely passed by Republican legislators and signed by Republican governors.

    Lists of donors are not a violation of the First Amendment. We can get lists of donors to every political campaign, candidate or ballot question, state and federal. Such campaign finance reporting laws have withstood judicial scrutiny. On what basis can you claim that lists of campaign contributors somehow violate the First Amendment?

    We hand over no rights in funding political campaigns. We protect the rights of citizens to know who is spending big money to influence our elections. We have as much right to know who is funding ballot measures as we do to know if those Twitter accounts shouting about Hillary’s e-mails or Trump’s Russia deals are real Americans or Russian cultural saboteurs.