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Senate pushes campaign spending reform

For decades, the federal government and many states, including Ohio, have rightly placed restrictions on corporate and union spending in candidate elections.

However, a recent decision by the United States Supreme Court essentially struck down these long-standing laws, and if steps are not taken soon to address the ruling, the upcoming general election in November and future political contests in our state and other parts of the country could be heavily influenced by unlimited, undisclosed campaign contributions.

On Jan. 21, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission that the First Amendment guarantees all corporations and unions the right to spend as much money as they want, whenever they want on independent advertisements and other political communications promoting or advocating for the defeat or election of candidates for public office.

The New York Times reported that the 24 states with limits or bans on these types of expenditures at the time would have to change their campaign finance laws to comply with the ruling.

On May 27, my colleagues and I in the Ohio Senate unanimously approved legislation that would make these necessary reforms to Ohio law, while also working to establish a statutory framework to ensure transparency in how corporations and unions spend to influence Ohio voters.

It is important to point out that while the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions have a right to spend freely on campaign ads, justices did not say that they had the right to make these expenditures in secret.

Senate Bill 240, which I co-sponsored, would require corporations and unions to report all independent campaign spending at or above $500, as well as the individual corporate or union donors to the Secretary of State’s office.

In addition, the bill would institute disclosure requirements for receipts to corporations and unions that are not for goods and services and are outside of the ordinary course of business.

This language is intended to prevent the shielding of contributions by funneling them through one corporation or union.

SB 240 picked up several amendments during hearings in the Senate State & Local Government & Veterans’ Affairs Committee based on input from both business and labor organizations.

For instance, the bill classifies an independent expenditure above $10,000 as an electioneering communication, requiring disclosure 24 hours after the payment is made, with weekly reporting for any subsequent expenditures.

An electioneering communication is any broadcast, cable or satellite communication that clearly mentions a specific candidate and is aired a certain number of days before a primary or general election. All other independent campaign spending would be filed annually.

SB 240 also updates Ohio statute to mirror a federal ban on independent campaign expenditures made by foreign nationals and foreign corporations, while clarifying that non-profit organizations, unions and corporations can continue, as allowed under current state law, to engage in communications with their members.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission effectively ends Ohio’s ability to control how much corporations and unions spend independently on advertisements to sway voters and influence elections in our state. But, we still have the power to monitor where this money is coming from and how it is being spent.

Passage of SB 240 would establish appropriate guidelines in Ohio law to strengthen transparency of corporate and union campaign spending, ensure Ohio voters have access to this important information and help protect the integrity of future elections in our state.

For more information about the bill, visit the Ohio General Assembly’s website at www.legislature.state.oh.us.

John A. Carey is a member of the Ohio Senate and represents the 17th District. He can be reached at Ohio Senate, Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio 43215 or by phone at (614) 466-8156.