AUGUSTA, Maine — Nonprofit organizations that spend money on political campaigns in Maine could be required to disclose their donors under a bill proposed by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton.

Saviello’s proposed legislation targets what many consider a flaw in Maine’s campaign finance disclosure laws and also looks to tackle the issue of so-called “dark money” in politics.

Saviello presented his bill Monday to the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over campaign finance laws in Maine.

Often those who donate to nonprofit organizations have no idea their donations will be used, in part, to fund political action committees. Under Maine law, those political action committees, often set up by the nonprofits, are required to disclose their funding sources but don’t have to name specifically the donors that provide money to their sponsoring nonprofits.

The PACs then spend money supporting or opposing candidates or ballot questions without voters ever being able to find out who bankrolled the campaign.

“I think people should know where that money is coming from,” Saviello said.

One recent example, according to Saviello, was the failed 2014 statewide ballot effort to ban bear hunting with bait, dogs and traps.

That campaign was largely bankrolled by the Humane Society, a national nonprofit that funded a ballot question committee — a kind of political action committee for a statewide referendum — that spent the money to sway Maine voters against bear hunting.

Saviello said many voters he spoke to during the course of the campaign, even those who said they supported the Humane Society, had no idea their donations were going to fuel a political campaign.

He said other nonprofits, including the Environment Health Strategy Center, used their nonprofit status to filter money to PACs that attacked specific legislative candidates in 2014.

Saviello’s bill, LD 189, would affect all types of nonprofits when they funnel money to political organizations and campaigns, requiring them to disclose all their donors for the two years prior to donating to a PAC.

Saviello said he’s open to changes to his proposal, including ones that would establish “threshold” amounts for spending and donations so that small donations to nonprofits would not necessarily be subjected to disclosure. He also said he did not intend the bill to require union members who pay regular union dues to have those dues become part of political disclosure reporting.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, which is tasked with enforcing state campaign finance and disclosure laws, testified neither for nor against the proposal. But he urged the committee to take into account constitutional issues related to the First Amendment right to free speech when deliberating on final language for Saviello’s proposal.

“This is an area in which our disclosure law should be strengthened but our perspective differs a little bit because we think it has to be done carefully because of the constitutional issues involved,” Wayne said.

Wayne said several other states had also passed legislation to increase transparency related to nonprofit involvement in political campaigns and suggested the committee look to some of those states for examples.

Former state Sen. Edward Youngblood, a Republican from Brewer who has worked closely with Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, also offered his support, noting nonprofits that are participating in political activity should not be treated any differently than other organizations that seek to influence voters.

Youngblood closed his statements with a quote from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the court’s most conservative jurists.

“Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage without which democracy is doomed,” Youngblood said, quoting Scalia. “For my part, I do not look forward to a society which campaigns anonymously, hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the home of the brave.”

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine offered testimony against the bill.

“This bill unnecessarily imposes an onerous burden on constitutionally protected speech,” Oamshri Amarasingham, an attorney with the ACLU of Maine, said of the bill.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.