The Senate Judiciary Committee struck down an amendment Tuesday that would require the disclosure of donors who fund certain political groups.
After nixing the amendment, the committee sent the bill up to the full chamber floor.
Tuesday marked the second day of reviewing an amendment proposed by Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, to Senate Bill 539, which would force non-profit organizations, like the National Rifle Association and American Federation of Teachers, that fund political advertisements to disclose their donors’ identities, if they reach a certain limit.
With a 3-11 vote, the committee knocked down the “dark money” disclosure amendment just before 10 p.m.
The panel heard testimony from Anthony Majestro, an elections lawyer practicing out of Charleston. He said the amendment to force disclosure has been upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
He testified that the committee could choose to strike down the amendment for philosophical or political reasons, but that it was constitutional nonetheless.
After his testimony, Majestro faced intense cross-examination from some of the senators.
Sparring in a back-and-forth into the legal weeds of constitutional tests of free speech and the framers’ intentions while writing the U.S. Constitution, Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, said the Constitution guarantees the right to private speech, which the disclosure laws infringe upon.
Likewise, Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, said the amendment’s disclosure laws would not help local elections’ real problems of money coming from legislative caucuses running insulting or deceitful political advertisements.
Countering these arguments, Romano, who said he is a lifetime NRA member, said when he pays his dues, he is given the option to isolate his money to non-political expenditures, which would protect him from disclosure.
He said disclosure keeps donors accountable for the political messages their dollars pay for.
“People have a harder time lying when they can’t hide behind their checkbooks,” he said.
Offering testimony against the bill, Daniel Hall, the state liaison for the NRA and former Republican state senator from Wyoming County, said the organization opposes campaign disclosures of any measure and said it makes members susceptible to political backlash.
The bill also raises donation citizens’ donation limits to political campaigns, committees, caucuses and political action groups.