There used to be 50 shades of dark money in politics. Overcast. Gloomy. Grimy. Inky. Shady. And so on. Now, there may be only one: Pitch-black.
There have always been lots of ways for people with cash and ambition to influence elections. Then the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision opened the flood gates, allowing the big money influence peddlers to hide behind phony organizations to pour unlimited cash into any race they chose.
States still had some control. At least we got to see how much money such groups were spending and on what.
Now, maybe not.
Arizona lawmakers have never really been that good at campaign finance regulation. (Either by choice or by ability. Or both.)
Late last week, a federal judge said the state is even worse than we thought.
Judge James Teilborg said Arizona laws that require a group to register with the state prior to spending money on a campaign are "vague, overbroad, and consequently unconstitutional in violation of the First Amendment."
He said it makes them unenforceable.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Drake told Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services that the ruling "does kind of turn campaign finance on its head."
As it is, dark money groups don't have to tell us who they are, thanks to the Supreme Court, but at least they have to tell us how much they are spending, and on which contests.
Now, perhaps, they don't.
The whole idea of disclosure laws is to let the rest of us know who is putting big bucks into political campaigns and how much. This particular ruling, if it stands, or if the legislature doesn't fix it, could eliminate the most useful reports that must now be filed.
Political committees still have to register, but in order for to people to get information about who is behind a particular campaign and how much they are spending, and on what, the legislature might have to craft new laws that courts would find constitutional.
The state wants the judge to delay implementation of his decision. The attorney from the Institute for Justice, which successfully argued the case, is opposed to that.
Sam Wercinski, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, which has lobbied for better disclosure laws, is optimistic.
"This is an opportunity for some fresh and purposeful disclosure laws to come out of this," he said. "A number of Republican lawmakers were targeted by dark money groups in the last election and this might be an opportunity to put together a bipartisan coalition for better laws. These lawmakers want voters to know who is targeting candidates and how much money is being spent. I believe that could happen. This decision will add motivation to draft additional legislation."
I hope so.
But if I were to scan the horizon and make a prediction I'd say the political forecast is cloudy .... with a chance of complete darkness.