State treasurers may seem like an improbable force to staunch the flood of corporate cash that is flowing into political campaigns following the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case.
But five state treasurers, including Oregon's Ted Wheeler and Washington's James MacIntire, have urged the Securities and Exchange Commission to require stricter disclosure of corporate campaign contributions. The idea is to put those contributions under greater scrutiny by shareholders, public pension funds managers and the general public.
“This issue is critical for decision makers working for institutional investors such as pension funds," Wheeler said. "Our decisions about what stock is worth purchasing affects the financial interest of many others. We can't do our job effectively without transparency about how corporations are spending their client's money.”
“I believe public corporations have an obligation to disclose to their shareholders their political and lobbying expenditures," MacIntire added. "While they may have legitimate needs for these expenditures, there is no excuse for not being transparent about them. We invest in these companies on behalf of beneficiaries and taxpayers, and we should have the opportunity to gauge the risks they may engender to the firm’s integrity and market reputation as they seek to influence public decisions.”
More disclosure in and of itself may not discourage corporate campaign giving, but it could make it less comfortable in some circumstances. The treasurers want to bring "dark money" political contributions into the light.
A press release accompanying the letter to the SEC cites data from the Center for Responsive Politics indicating dark money contributions spiked to $170 million in the 2014 elections and are expected to increase even more in a presidential election year in 2016.
The SEC has received more than a million supportive comments of a petition asking the regulatory agency to require disclosure of campaign expenses. Treasurers who signed the letter to the SEC said this addition has been the number one demand of shareholders in U.S. corporations. More than 60 percent of publicly traded corporations voluntarily disclose their campaign contributions.
The treasurers, including officials from North Carolina, Rhode Island and Vermont, represent public funds with $300 billion under their management.