The money trail between independent groups and political parties

It was the final days of the campaign — and the state’s political leaders were sharply divided over a complex constitutional amendment on agency rulemaking.

The group supporting the amendment opened its checkbook, spending $107,388.

But Citizens for HJR 5 didn’t spend this money directly. Instead, the money went to the Idaho Republican Party.

The Citizens for HJR 5 money trail isn’t unprecedented. But it does illustrate a bigger trend — the complex relationship between independent groups and political parties and their candidates.

Following the HJR 5 money

With HJR 5, voters were asked to decide on an arcane question: Should Idaho legislators continue to have the unique power to review and reject state agency rules, and should the Constitution protect the Legislature’s authority?

Voters rejected a similar amendment in 2014. Citizens for HJR 5 was formed, in essence, to make sure that didn’t happen a second time.

But campaign finance reports chronicle a flow of money between Republicans and Citizens for HJR 5:

  • In the Oct. 1-Oct. 23 filing period, Citizens for HJR 5 reported raising $77,050. Present or outgoing Republican legislators contributed $19,550; House Speaker Scott Bedke alone accounted for $5,000 of this amount. As legislative campaigns unfolded across the state, the GOP’s House and Senate political committees each kicked in $5,000. So did Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, who was in the midst of a run for a ninth term in Congress.
  • Despite all of this fundraising activity, Citizens for HJR 5 reported spending no money from Oct. 1 to Oct. 23, a critical three-week period in the runup to the Nov. 8 election.
  • This changed on Oct. 25. Citizens for HJR 5 gave $56,194 to the Idaho Republican Party. On Nov. 2, Citizens for HJR 5 followed up with an additional $51,194. The money went to direct mailers supporting the amendment, Citizens for HJR 5 treasurer Travis B. Hawkes said Thursday.

“We are grateful for (the Republican Party’s) support as well as the support of many other coalition members who we worked closely with and who made similar efforts to educate voters on this important issue,” Hawkes said.

However, the relationship between Citizens for HJR 5 and the GOP oversimplifies the politics of the issue.

At its heart, HJR 5 addressed a nonpartisan issue: the process of rules review. Some agency rules are dry and routine, but others aren’t. For example, Idaho adopted its version of Common Core by rule, and in 2016, lawmakers rejected science standards addressing matters such as climate change and the age of the earth.

In March, HJR 5 passed the Legislature overwhelmingly. No Republican opposed the amendment, but most Democrats endorsed it as well.

This fall, however, HJR 5 divided the state’s GOP leadership. Gov. Butch Otter and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden opposed the amendment, while Lt. Gov. Brad Little and U.S. Sen. Jim Risch urged its passage.

Ultimately, HJR 5 passed with close to 56 percent of the vote. And its supporters didn’t seem to miss the money they put into the campaign: Simpson was re-elected, and the GOP picked up three seats in the Idaho House and one state Senate seat.

A common (but contentious) practice

During the October filing period, the Idaho Education Association’s political arm was relatively quiet.

The Political Action Committee for Education contributed $5,100. Of that, $1,100 went to three Democratic legislative candidates: Kristi Milan of Coeur d’Alene, Patricia Day Hartwell of Caldwell and David Maguire of Pocatello. The rest went to two independent groups: Conservation Voters of Idaho and Responsible Leadership for Idaho.

During the summer reporting period, the IEA gave an additional $32,000 to Responsible Leadership for Idaho.

The contributions to independent groups “have been standard operating procedure for many years,” IEA spokesman Dave Harbison said Thursday. And in the previous three elections, PACE has tended to favor independent donations over direct contributions to candidates.

To be sure, there are differences between Citizens for HJR 5 and independent groups such as PACE, Conservation Voters of Idaho and Responsible Leadership for Idaho. While Citizens for HJR 5 was tied to a specific ballot measure, most independent groups are not. On its website, the state’s elections office lists more than 150 independent political groups — from labor unions to Otter’s Otter PAC to the Idaho Prosperity Fund, an offshoot of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, a prominent business lobbying group. Not all of these 150 groups are active, however, and some have disbanded.

While the practice of independent campaign finance is routine, that doesn’t mean it’s without controversy.

As Responsible Leadership for Idaho emerged as a key donor to Democratic legislative campaigns, the Idaho Republican Party issued a statement to Kimberlee Kruesi of the Associated Press — accusing the Democrats of hiding their brand and resorting “to a ploy that amounts to money laundering.”

Democrats fired back days later. They accused Republican staffers and legislative candidate Mike Kingsley of working with a third party to orchestrate an ad campaign against House Minority Leader John Rusche. State law forbids campaigns and parties from working directly with independent political groups.

The secretary of state’s office investigated the Democrats’ complaint and found no wrongdoing. “There was nothing to show that the expenditure was not independent under the Sunshine Law,” chief deputy Tim Hurst told Idaho Education News Thursday.

More reading: Democrats outspent Republicans in the runup to the Nov. 8 legislative elections — yet Rusche and another Democratic incumbent lost. Details on Kevin Richert’s blog.

Coming Friday: Boise State University assistant professor Jaclyn Kettler joins Kevin Richert and Clark Corbin on Idaho Education News’ Extra Credit podcast. They’ll take a closer look at the 2016 elections and take your questions. Tune in on Facebook Live at 10:30 a.m., or watch for the podcast later that day.