Thursday, March 04, 2010

Money and politics: more hard questions

At a State Board of Elections hearing this afternoon, a lawyer for the N.C. Assocation of Realtors and a lawyer for real estate agents are facing off over the question whether the association violated state law in assessing members $70 extra in 2007 to fight proposed referenda in two dozen counties that would have raised the local real estate transfer tax.

The lawyers are still going through a lot of throat-clearing while board chairman Larry Leake of Buncombe County has pressed each of them to say whether they think it's a violation of the law to require trade association members to pay fees such as assessments to pursue a political end. To remain members of the association and have access to the multiple listing service, agents had to pay the assessment. Was that a form of coercion to support a political issue? Cary real estate agency Becky Harper, who filed the original complaint, said access to the multiple listings is like a carpenter's hammer -- absolutely necessary to make a living.

But the key subtext of the hearing is how a recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission affects this issue and many other state laws. The decision allows corporations, labor unions and trade associations to spend unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns, and it's fairly clear that states are going to grapple with how to require disclosure of the sums spent.

In the audience at the State Board of Elections hearing is Damon Circostsa, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education. He sent around this electronic comment a few minutes ago:

"Listening to this hearing and trying to decipher when and how money was spent to influence elections in 2007 makes my head hurt... And I am an elections lawyer.

"The supreme court has opened the doors for groups like the realtors to spend freely in future elections.

If we are going to have any idea how money is spent to influence elections we are going to need some serious reform of our disclosure laws.

"At the very least we need to know where the money is coming from. Listening to this hearing is proof positive that the general assembly is going to do some serious work, soon, so we can know why and how money is spent in our campaigns.