Reform campaign finance laws to restore public trust

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In 2016 there was a public referendum that attempted to place a national platform of campaign finance reform onto the ballot in Idaho. Multiple States had implemented all, or a portion, of this platform, and it was being hailed as a solution to corrupt politics. While the referendum failed to gain enough signatures to be placed on the ballot, the interest it generated did provoke legislative leadership to act prudently and form an interim working group tasked with examining Idaho’s current campaign finance laws. The working group is comprised of five Senators, and five Representatives, including a member of the minority party from each body. A report stating the findings of the working group is due at the beginning of the 2018 Legislative Session.

The working group first met in July. Much of the first meeting was undefined with little discussion, and the co-chairs laying the foundation for what would be examined. Testimony from interested parties was brief, with only Secretary of State Lawrence Denney speaking for an extended period of time on areas of concern that his office had encountered. Secretary Denney also shared his thoughts on potential legislation that he felt could address some of the insufficiencies in our laws. The second meeting provided more in-depth discussion and testimony from different groups, as well as a slate of legislation Secretary Denney had prepared for the 2017 Session that addressed may of the same areas of concern as the attempted referendum.

One area of concern that has garnered national attention is that of “Dark Money” being injected into campaigns. This is political spending by an entity that does not have as its primary purpose the influencing of elections. These groups often are able to push money through multiple other entities and have no responsibility to disclose the original source of the donation. A suggested solution to this problem is a law stating that an Idaho political committee may not accept any donation over a specified amount, from another political committee unless it is registered in Idaho.

Another hot topic, which caused a partisan study to grade Idaho a D, is our lack of personal financial disclosure for candidates. Most in the working group were not anxious to go down this path, seeing it as primarily being used as an arbitrary lever against a political opponent. A template based on the model Utah uses was presented to the working group, and appears to balance safeguarding private information while still providing evidence against potential conflicts of interest.

An area that Idaho is wanting in is the timing of our required disclosures. Some campaigns have become full time endeavors and it would seem appropriate that we require more frequent campaign finance disclosures, especially during an election year. Also noted was the disclosure loophole that exists in the final days leading up to an election which allows expenditures to be made by the candidate, or on their behalf, which will not be made public until after the election, effectively protecting the anonymity of the source. An updated IT system for the Secretary of State’s office would ease the burden of reporting by donors and receivers, as well as allow the public to scrutinize either immediately following disclosure.

Something completely new that all group members agreed was necessary is requiring campaign finance disclosure for local elections. Large quantities of money are frequently spent in these races throughout the State and the public has little recourse to determine who is invested in the outcome. There are logistical difficulties on how to collect and publish the information that will need to be solved, but most agree that it ultimately should end with the central repository being the Secretary of State’s office.

The original intent of our “Sunshine Laws” was to give the public confidence in our electoral system, and our state government in general. Over time, people have found ways to exploit weaknesses extant within our system that have eroded the public confidence, and have reinforced the growing distaste for elected office holders. The efforts of this legislative working group, as well as those who are actively participating in their hearings, should result in a more transparent, just, and accessible electoral system that can aid in restoring the public trust.

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