House, Senate Leaders Unveil Campaign Finance, Election Law Package

DOVER – House and Senate leaders unveiled a package of bills Thursday that would overhaul the Department of Elections, election law and campaign finance, incorporating recommendations from an independent report, a legislative task force and other research.

The package of six bills, which were developed in conjunction with the governor’s office, would address entity contributions, safe harbor for returned contributions, an additional reporting period for campaign finance reports and whistleblower protections. There also is legislation incorporating several recommendations from the Election Law Task Force that reform the Department of Elections and will help with campaign finance reforms. These bills incorporate several recommendations from former Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman E. Veasey’s report, the legislative Election Law Task Force and proposals developed through research.

“We had a lot of recommendations and ideas come forward in recent months from different sources,” said House Speaker Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach. “While it would have been easy to file bills in piecemeal fashion, we felt it was better to build consensus between both chambers and the governor’s office to put forth a package of bills that addresses a variety of areas. Crafting good, meaningful legislation is not a race; it’s about doing it well and getting it right. We feel that that is what we are presenting today.”

In December, former Chief Justice Veasey issued a 101-page report on Delaware’s campaign finance system and made several recommendations to improve those laws. On Monday, the legislative task force concluded its work reviewing election law and issued its report. The two reports provided the basis for the six bills.

“This package of bills represents the best efforts of a lot of different people, both in and out of the Delaware General Assembly,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Patricia M. Blevins, D-Elsmere. “Our election and campaign finance laws are generally good, but, as with everything else, there is room for improvement. The efforts of Justice Veasey and the legislative task force have shown us some areas where changes are needed. If enacted, these bills will address those areas and make our system even better.”

Gov. Jack Markell voiced support for the package of bills, noting that they build on campaign finance reforms enacted in 2012.

“We have made significant progress in making our campaign finance system more transparent with more disclosure of the sources of campaign contributions than ever before,” said Gov. Markell. “However, we should always be looking to improve our laws to strengthen the public’s confidence in our political process. The proposed legislation makes additional progress by increasing transparency improving the efficiency of our elections system, and providing the tools necessary to investigate and prosecute possible violations of Delaware’s election laws.”

The central component of the package is a bill sponsored by Rep. Earl Jaques and Sen. Margaret Rose Henry that incorporates recommendations from the legislative task force, which they both served on, and other campaign finance reforms. House Bill 302 would consolidate the three county election boards into a state board, provide the elections commissioner with the authority to investigate campaign finance violations and allow for the anonymous reporting of possible violations of election laws.

“A lot of the reforms being discussed lose their impact if we don’t have a Department of Elections that is running at peak efficiency and an elections commissioner that has the ability to investigate possible campaign finance violations,” said Rep. Jaques, D-Glasgow. “Having three separate county boards of election has resulted in a lack of coordination between them and the elections commissioner and a lack of oversight. Creating one state board of elections will streamline election functions throughout the state.

“Giving the elections commissioner investigatory powers is a common-sense move that provides someone with the authority to look into problems when they come up.”

HB 302 would create a commissioner’s counsel to provide legal guidance, review and investigate possible violations and refer them to prosecutors for further action.

Senate Bill 186, sponsored by Sen. Henry and Rep. Michael Mulrooney, would require entities (such as LLCs) that contribute more than $100 to a political committee to disclose the name and address of a “responsible party,” someone who shares or exercises direction or control over the group’s activities. It also requires the Department of Elections to adopt a uniform summary of the law governing entity contributions and to post the summary on the department’s website.

“The most important thing about Senate Bill 186,” Sen. Henry said, “is that it makes our campaign finance process much more open and equitable. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling said that these types of entities have free speech rights to make campaign contributions. Since we require citizens who contribute over $100 to provide their names and addresses, we should do the same thing for corporate entities.”

House Bill 300, sponsored by Reps. Paul Baumbach and Kim Williams and Sen. Bryan Townsend, would amend Delaware’s Whistleblower Protections Act to prevent retaliation against an employee for reporting or participating in an investigation of campaign finance violations or an employee who refuses to participate in violations of the campaign finance laws.

“Delaware is making significant improvements this year to its campaign finance system. We also need to build in detection and prosecution of violations,” said Rep. Baumbach, D-Newark. “The best method to detect violations is to boost the number of detectives rooting out violations, and empowering citizens is a great way to accomplish that. To empower citizen detectives, we must provide protections and guarantees that reporting a campaign finance violation cannot lead to the person losing his or her job.

“The Whistleblowers’ Protection Act does just that, ensuring that employees who report or otherwise help uncover campaign finance violations are safe from being fired, threatened, or discriminated against.”

HB 300 differs from a similar bill filed last week. That bill would protect an employee from retaliation only if they reported a violation against his or her employer. HB 300 would provide broader protections, shielding a worker from employer retaliation if he or she reports a violation against any entity or individual.

Senate Bill 187, sponsored by Sen. Robert Marshall and Rep. Ed Osienski, would allow campaigns to return contributions mistakenly above the legal limit and authorize campaigns to donate other unauthorized contributions to a charitable organization. The “safe harbor” protection is designed to codify an existing practice of donating prohibited or suspected prohibited contributions to nonprofit groups.

“The real purpose of this legislation is to codify what is already being done. In particular, the provision that allows campaigns to donate to charity any contributions that a campaign learns after the fact were improper is a good and reasonable way to handle this problem if and when it arises,” Sen. Marshall said. “The bill would allow contributions to be made to one or more of the approved charitable organizations listed on state income tax returns for taxpayers who might want to contribute part of their tax refund money to a good cause.”

House Bill 301, sponsored by Rep. Trey Paradee and Sen. David Sokola, would clarify and establish specific procedures for how a contribution from a joint bank account should be attributed. If more than one person on the joint account signs the check or provides their signature in a separate writing authorizing the contribution, the contribution would be allocated equally to those persons unless written directions are provided for allocating the donation. The bill also lays out a process for various scenarios, such as one person on a joint account signing a check and if a contribution causes a contributor to exceed donation limits.

“Candidates often run into situations where they are handed a check from a joint account, which might be signed by one person, whereas the other person is not aware of the check being written,” said Rep. Paradee, D-West Dover. “This bill will lay out clear procedures for how to handle these situations and to make sure all parties are aware of the contributions and that they are properly reported to the public.”

One bill already has been filed and awaits action by the full House. House Bill 170, sponsored by Rep. Dennis E. Williams and Sen. Bryan Townsend, would establish June 30 as an additional mandatory reporting period for political campaign committees. The existing December 31 and new June 30 reports would need to be filed within 20 days of the deadline.

“The federal government requires quarterly reports for campaign finance,” said Rep. Williams, D-Talleyville. “By creating an additional mid-year report for Delaware political campaign committees, we are increasing transparency and the amount of information available to the public. Currently, a candidate or entity could create a committee in January of an election year, spend thousands of dollars on advertisements and literature, and the public would have no idea who has contributed to them until less than a month before the election. That is not open government, and it only serves to shield information from the public.”