Appeal May Revive Campaign-Spending Law

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The limit Mississippi sets for campaign-funding disclosures faced scrutiny from the 5th Circuit on Wednesday as a judge questioned what figure opponents would accept.
     For Attorney General Jim Hood, Mississippi's campaign-disclosure requirements are "very modest." They stipulate that anyone who donates more than $200 must register with the state, and are in place to educate the public about who is spending in an attempt to influence elections - not as a means of overburdening citizens.
     While these very simple campaign-disclosure laws require no cap and no limit on what can be raised or spent, "full disclosure is required," Hood told the three-judge panel.
     Paul Avelar, an attorney with Institute for Justice representing the laws' opponents, meanwhile told the panel that Mississippi's campaign-finance requirements "are more burdensome" than necessary, and place substantial burdens on ordinary citizens who want to speak about ballot issues.
     These very qualities led U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock to find the laws unconstitutional last year, Avelar said.
     Avelar noted that his clients, five residents from Oxford, Miss., feared they had contravened the law after they "passed a hat" in support of an ultimately successful ballot initiative to limit the government's eminent domain power over private land.
     Though the Oxford residents simply wanted to have enough money to "maybe buy postage and buy some fliers, run an ad in their local paper," Mississippi law requires groups seeking to support or oppose statewide balloted measures to register as a political committee if they receive or spend more than $200 during a calendar year.
     The law also requires the campaign finance reports to include the name and address of anyone who donated more than $200 to affect a ballot issue.
     Aycock's Sept. 30 ruling had endorsed Mississippi's requirement for some level of campaign-finance reporting by individuals and groups that want to influence elections, but found it too restrictive to impose requirements on groups expending as little as $200.
     Hood had called Aycock's reference to the $200 threshold "subjective," and noted that the Supreme Court does not hold with an unconstitutional "value judgment" of that nature.
     Avelar took issue with Hood's claim that the "key" in campaign financing is to be "exceptionally fair."
     The Supreme Court says disclosure "has some value, but not that much," Avelar said.
     Sitting on the appellate panel with Judges James Dennis and W. Eugene Davis, Judge Gregg Costa asked Avelar what would happen if the group raised $800.
     "Are they covered?" he asked. "Or do they have to go back to court and challenge, analyzing if $800 is too low?"
     Voters just "want to know" who is supporting ballot initiatives, the judge said, using unions and the oil industry as an example. "People see that," Costa said. "If they like unions or the oil industry, they vote for it. If not, they vote against it."
     The attorney general likewise had highlighted transparency is "key" in campaign spending.
     But Avelar said his clients, a group of "friends and neighbors," "didn't object to being regulated, they objected to the regulation."
     The also feared the "heavy punishments" would follow if they did not comply with the state's demand to give their names and addresses for donations eclipsing $200, Avelar said. He noted that repercussions include a $1,000 fine or even jail time.
     Hood called Mississippi's disclosure requirements "much simpler" than those of other states whose requirements have been upheld in other courts.
     As to the paperwork that state law requires donors who spend more than $200 to fill out, Hood said a look at those forms shows that "they are not particularly unconstitutional."
     Institute for Justice is a Libertarian nonprofit based in Virginia.