PHOENIX — State lawmakers voted Tuesday to block any efforts by cities and counties to find out — and inform the public — who is funneling money into local elections through nonprofit groups.
On a 33-25 vote, the Republican-controlled House voted to prohibit local governments from requiring organizations declared to be tax-exempt by the IRS from registering as political action committees, even if they are putting money into races.
It would preclude any requirement that these so-called “dark money” groups identify donors. And it would bar local governments from auditing the books of these groups or requiring them to respond to subpoenas, even if there were allegations they were violating campaign-finance laws.
HB 2153 now goes to the Senate, which also is dominated by Republicans.
The legislation comes two years after lawmakers voted to grant more anonymity to donors to organizations that are putting money into independent campaigns for state and legislative races. Foes of disclosure have now turned their attention to local races.
Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, who has championed the measure, conceded that no Arizona community has sought to impose such reporting requirements on nonprofit organizations. Instead, he argued, it was designed to get out in front of the issue before some community could approve measures like one that exists in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
It comes as residents in Tempe are set to vote next month on a proposal to require that any group spending at least $1,000 on independent campaigns disclose its donors. HB 2153, if signed into law, would pre-empt such an ordinance.
At the heart of the debate is a contention by Leach and other supporters that requiring disclosure could result in individual donors being harassed.
Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, said the measure is badly flawed.
He said an organization can qualify for nonprofit status from the IRS if it does not spend a majority of its funds to influence elections. But Clark said that has no meaning when there are major donors who have deep pockets and still can spend millions of dollars to influence elections without endangering that nonprofit status.
The real issue comes down to what most Republicans and many business groups contend is the right of individuals and businesses to influence elections anonymously.