Independent political ads (copy)

Secretive groups funded millions of dollars in political ads in 2018, and many of the donors behind that spending remain anonymous because South Carolina is one of only three state's that doesn't track third-party spending in its elections. 

COLUMBIA — South Carolina lawmakers advanced two "sunshine" bills Thursday that could shed more light onto political campaign ads paid for by secretive groups and their anonymous donors. 

A panel of state representatives moved the legislation forward even as two lobbyists funded by Charles and David Koch — the billionaire owners of Koch Industries — threw up objections to the legislation.

"Those in power shouldn't force individuals to register their beliefs, their donations or their associations," said Andrew Yates, a lobbyist with Americans for Prosperity, a group partially financed by the Kochs.

The brothers are two of the most prominent Republican benefactors in the country. 

It's too late for either piece of legislation to pass the full Statehouse this year. But the bills could still become law next session before another round of anonymous spending takes place in 2020. 

The legislation would require some groups that spend on political mailers, radio ads or television commercials to register with the State Ethics Commission. They'd also need to disclose how much they spent and any donors who contributed more than $1,000. 

A Post and Courier investigation this year detailed more than $6 million in that type of spending by third-party groups during the 2018 elections. Many of those groups were cloaked in secrecy, which is why they are often referred to as "dark money" organizations. 

The $6 million detailed by the newspaper is likely only part of what was spent. It's impossible to know the total amount because South Carolina is one of the few states that doesn't track any of these independent advertising campaigns. 

The lawmakers sponsoring the legislation argued the bills are needed to bring transparency to South Carolina's elections and government. 

"One of the things that I learned in the past year especially is that South Carolina really is the Wild West when it comes to independent expenditures," said Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster.

Norrell, who was the running mate for Democratic gubernatorial candidate James Smith last year, also had an anonymous group — South Carolinians for Ethical Leadership — spend money on her behalf last year. 

On Thursday, she said that type of activity needs to stop. She called it "detrimental to democracy." 

This isn't the first time lawmakers have tried to tackle this issue, but earlier efforts to require these outside groups to file paperwork with the ethics commission has been waylaid in the Senate.  

Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, said something needs to be done about the anonymous spending that allows corporations, wealthy individuals and special-interest groups to target specific lawmakers without attaching their name to that spending. 

"Sunshine is the best disinfectant. It's what the public wants. It's what the public needs. And I think it's important for the trust in government," said McCoy, chairman of the House's Judiciary Committee.

Yates, however, of the Americans for Prosperity group, referred to the disclosure requirements as "government-facilitated intimidation." 

He argued that people should be allowed to spend thousands or millions of dollars attacking or supporting a political candidate without being named in public. In that way, people can't be "ostracized" for their political donations, he said. 

"Transparency is good for government, accountability and oversight, but individuals still have a right to privacy in this state," he said. 

"There is a space in our constitution for anonymous political speech," added Will Kinney, the lobbyist for Koch Industries, which donated heavily to Gov. Henry McMaster last year. 

Many other states require at least some form of disclosure by groups spending money on independent political ads during elections. 

Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, asked specifically why people who donate money directly to a candidate have their name listed on the State Ethics Commission website, but donors to these third-party groups demand anonymity. 

"It strikes me that disclosure is a good thing all the way around when it involves government," Newton said. 

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Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.