An effort to crackdown on ‘dark money’ in Wyoming quietly died at the Legislature. Nobody is quiet sure why. | 307 Politics

CHEYENNE — After a 2016 campaign cycle in Wyoming during which accusations of “dark money” spending and campaign finance law violations were slung by both Republicans and Democrats, the Legislature sought to clarify and strengthen the rules.

This was to be done largely through two bills, House Bill 2 and House Bill 67. The first was meant to improve the ability of law enforcement and local government to enforce the existing laws while the second was meant to clarify those laws. The first measure passed and has been signed into law by Gov. Matt Mead, while House Bill 67 died a quiet — and critics say alarming — death, falling victim to one of the Legislature’s many cut-off deadlines.

While House Bill 67 received the requisite two-thirds vote for introduction in the House and was then approved for passage by the chamber’s corporations and elections committee, it missed the deadline for committee-backed bills to be brought back to the House.

“I’m baffled,” said Equality State Policy Center executive director Phoebe Stoner, who had pushed hard for House Bill 67’s passage.

The measure would have tightened definitions for political spending to include “electioneering communications,” messages that don’t explicitly call for voters to act in a certain manner but nonetheless seek to influence an election by, for example, stating that “Joe Smith hates public lands” or “Sally Johnson supports the Second Amendment.”

Stoner said she assumed that because the bill was sponsored by a committee and had passed its first hurdle for introduction, it would be introduced without issue. She’s now concerned that this year’s election cycle will continue to be tainted by anonymous or murky political contributions.

What happened

Like Stoner, House corporations committee chairman Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, assumed that House Bill 67 would have advanced further, especially because the committee returned it to the full House one week before the deadline.

“Historically, if you have a committee bill it’s almost guaranteed to get through the process,” Zwonitzer said.

House Majority Floor Leader David Miller, R-Riverton, has the final say on which bills are heard in the House. He is responsible for setting the list of bills to be considered and which order they will be voted on ahead of looming deadlines.

Zwonitzer said he watched House Bill 67 move further down, and then stay toward the bottom of that list each day of the week it needed to be heard. He doesn’t know why it did not receive a hearing, acknowledging that there were many bills to be considered during the session and that House Bill 67 included a lengthy amendment that Miller may have feared would slow down the process.

“I’ll just say it was surprising,” Zwonitzer said.

But both Zwonitzer and Stoner suggested there may have been something nefarious going on behind the scenes. The Wyoming Liberty Group, a prominent libertarian think tank and advocacy group, lobbied against certain aspects of House Bill 67 during a contentious corporations committee meeting in Sundance last fall, though executive director Jonathan Downing didn’t put up much of a fight against the bill once it made it to Cheyenne.

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A change to the bill that Stoner considered unfriendly to the Liberty Group sailed through the committee, before the legislation was killed for lack of a second vote in the House.

“It’s really suspicious that a committee bill with strong support, addressing something that was a high priority and needed fixing, suddenly got knocked down,” Stoner said.

But Downing said he didn’t speak against the bill during its committee hearing in February because he was not well-versed in campaign finance law, an area that is usually handled for the Liberty Group by specialist Steve Klein, who was not in Cheyenne during the meeting.

“We haven’t been working it,” Downing said shortly after the measure died. In an interview this week, Klein confirmed that he had not spoken with Miller or actively lobbied House members after the bill passed committee.

Miller said he was surprised to hear that Zwonitzer was upset that House Bill 67 had not come up for a vote, saying that Zwonitzer had told him it was not a major priority and that Liberty Group had not contacted him regarding the legislation.

“Everyone had bills, I said, ‘What can I move towards the bottom?’ and that was one of them,” Miller said. “(Zwonitzer) wanted the other bills he had higher.”

Zwonitzer said he did have the same recollection of the conversation.

Lose-lose proposition?

As for Liberty Group’s involvement, Klein said he wasn’t even interested in killing House Bill 67. He faced off with the Equality State Policy Center in Sundance over whether to remove a provision requiring comprehensive financial reporting from groups that are not primarily focused on politics, such as a think tank or non-profit, if they engage in limited campaign activity. Klein said that current Wyoming law, unconstitutionally in his view, compels those groups to report donors and spending activity similar to a PAC or campaign committee if their employees do any political advocacy work, such as writing a blog post opposing a ballot measure.

The Liberty Group sought to have that provision removed from existing statute in Sundance, a move that the committee went along with over Stoner’s objections. In Cheyenne, the committee agreed to reinstate much of that language but with slightly clearer stipulations including that the political activity must exceed $500 and that the donor and expenditure reporting would only apply to the political activity in question.

Klein said that he did not consider that new language unconstitutional and thus would not have opposed House Bill 67’s passage by the Legislature.

“I thought it was a bit silly but it was at least constitutional,” he said. “Silly but constitutional — that’s better than unconstitutional.”

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In fact, the failure of the measure to pass has irked both the Equality State Policy Center and Wyoming Liberty Group. Stoner is worried that without the new regulations in place, 2018 may see a repeat of the campaign cycle two years ago when mailers from so-called “dark money” groups attacked politicians from both parties.

“We needed to get these things addressed — glaring problems that arose in 2016,” she said. “This was our opportunity to address them before the next election and we failed to do that.”

But the other major piece of campaign finance reform legislation, House Bill 2, did pass. House Bill 2 strengthened the ability of law enforcement and campaign officials in Wyoming to enforce the laws that already exist. Currently, responsibility for sanctioning candidates that violate the law is split between the secretary of state’s office and attorney general and in 2016 those offices referred complaints to one another in a cycle that alarmed good government watchers.

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House Bill 2 also sets penalties for failing to file reports and adds to the list of people who may file complaints about, and investigate, violations.

Klein said that strengthening the ability to enforce Wyoming’s campaign finance laws without clarifying them effectively opened the door for overzealous officials to act on apparent improprieties. He said accusations of such violations are easy for campaigns to throw around, hoping to grab headlines and land opponents in hot water.

“Campaign finance is sexy,” Klein said. “I’m fearful going forward that … a feisty county attorney or clerk might start going after people for making a single blog or even Facebook post.”

He was also disappointed that some other changes in the bill that Liberty Group did support, such as raising the threshold for political contributions that needed to be reported from $25 to $100, did not make it through the Legislature.

So with the two groups that were at odds over several provisions in House Bill 67 both unhappy that it didn’t survive the process — and the committee chairman who shepherded the legislation likewise disappointed — what is to blame for its failure to become law?

Other than the busy nature of the four-week budget session, Zwonitzer still isn’t sure.

“There was a lot going on,” he said. “But it was disconcerting.”