AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Ethics Commission approved with a 4-1 vote Thursday the pursuit of a proposed bill that would require organizations that spend money in Maine elections to disclose their donor lists in campaign finance filings.

The commission, which among other things oversees campaign finance laws in Maine, is weighing whether to ask the Legislature for a law change that requires national organizations that use their resources to influence Maine elections to disclose their donor lists. The law as currently proposed would apply to political action committees and ballot question committees that spend more than $5,000 to influence the outcome of an election or referendum.

“This is more significant legislation than the commission often proposes,” said Ethics Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne, who drafted the proposal. “But here we see something that is a trend that we find troubling.”

The new law comes after a five-year legal battle that ended last month with the National Organization for Marriage disclosing its donor list after that organization’s unsuccessful multi-year legal battle to withhold information about donors to its effort to repeal Maine’s same-sex marriage law in 2009. NOM also paid a fine of more than $50,000, which remains a record-breaking fine in Maine.

Commissioner Richard Nass, who cast the lone vote against the measure, said he is opposed because of a range of complications he anticipates and that he saw donor information as “interesting but not important” in the context of elections.

“I think this is taking us down a road that is impossible administratively for us to deal with,” he said. “This is a disaster in my mind. I know it seems important to know who makes donations but isn’t it more important to know what the question is?”

Other commissioners said they see problems with the proposal but that it deserves legislative scrutiny.

“I think it is at least worthy of the very public discussion it would get in the legislative arena … I’m not sure this is the way yet,” said Commissioner Margaret Matheson.

Commissioner Michael Healy voiced concern that donors to organizations could end up on a finance disclosure list for a person or question that he or she doesn’t support.

“The organization is really the donor,” said Healy. “The person who gave the donation is not the real donor, the organization is.”

Katherine Knox, a lobbyist for Bernstein Shur who is an expert in campaign finance law, said during Thursday’s meeting that most large national organizations would likely have little problem abiding by the law if it were enacted because their donors know, in general, how their donations will be spent. But smaller, local organizations that use their donations for causes in addition to spending on elections could encounter complications if they are forced to tell donors their names will be disclosed on a finance report.

“Those organizations are worried that that would chill contributions, potentially,” said Knox.

The bill, which is already being drafted by the Legislature’s Revisor’s Office, will be considered when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.