In a rush to adjourn, the General Assembly is passing bills by the fistful with little real debate or consideration of the impact of the legislation. While it is hard to pick out which bill to call the worst – one stands out – Senate Bill 1263, Election Law Amendments. This bill, while containing a number of tweaks to election law, contains one change that should be seen as a tsunami headed for the 2008 elections!
This bill will remove all limits on contributions and spending for certain Political Action Committees (PACs). According to the calendar we are about 90 days from the start of voting and the Legislature is considering a massive change to how campaigns are conducted with little study, debate or understanding of the consequences. The change in question:
SECTION 6.(c) G.S. 163 278.13 is amended by adding a new subsection to read:
"(e5) The contribution limits of subsections (a) and (b) of this section do not apply to contributions made to an independent expenditure political committee. For purposes of this section an “independent expenditure political committee” is a political committee whose treasurer makes and abides by a certification to the State Board of Elections that the political committee does not and will not make contributions, directly or indirectly, to candidates or political committees that makes contributions to candidates. The State Board of Elections shall provide forms for implementation of this subsection…"
In practice this change will open the door for PACs that do not have to abide by the same rules as candidates and PACs that happen to contribute to candidates. PACs can expressly call for the defeat or election of a candidate by name. While much has been made of the “527” committees that have appeared after the last round of “campaign finance reform” this change has the potential to make 527s seem quaint. Unlike PACs, 527s are prohibited from expressly calling for the election or defeat of a specific candidate and face other limitations.
Under this provision, a wealthy individual or special interest group may decide to set up a PAC that is an “independent expenditure political committee” to raise and spend unlimited amounts in order to defeat a local legislator. A wealthy individual could give millions to one of these PACs to defeat any candidate they disliked.
Some argue that this change is required to meet court decisions and bring our elections laws into compliance. While that seems like a legitimate reason, in actual fact the Legislature is jumping the gun. No judgment on the court case has been entered by the Federal District Court, and the N.C. Attorney General is still contesting what form the final judgment will take.
In any event, there is no need to fix this problem in the middle of an election cycle. If everyone just takes a deep breath and relaxes they could easily fix this problem without causing turmoil in the upcoming election. They can do nothing and fix it at the start of the 2009 session (by which time they may have a court judgment to use for guidance). They can send it to a study committee as they do many, many suggested changes in the law. They can pass it with an implementation date in 2009 that will give the new Legislature the chance to change it to comply with the Federal District Court judgment and not interfere with the 2008 election.
Speaker Joe Hackney has the best reason to slow down on this change. When explaining why he would not let legislation to strengthen the public records law be heard, he said, "I’m just leery of doing things at the last minute.”