Monday, February 25, 2008

Campaign finance in the morning

Senate Corporations Committee hears campaign finance bills Tuesday

We'll take our effort to plug the PAC loophole in state campaign finance law to the Senate Corporations Committee Tuesday morning at 8 a.m.

If you've been tracking these bills -- House Bill 3 Campaign Finance - electronic filing and House Bill 9 - Campaign Finance -- you know they bring to mind the old axiom about being careful about what you ask for. We wanted campaign financing on the Joint Corporations Committee's 2007 interim work list because we saw a loophole exploited in 2006.

Casper developer Mickey McMurry set up a Political Action Committee called the Committee to Elect Natrona County Candidates, to which he was the sole contributor. He put about $11,575 in it, then gave roughly $11,200 to Barb Peryam to finance her campaign for a seat on the Natrona County Commission. She won with a well-funded media campaign that included billboards all over Casper.

The PAC enabled McMurry to avoid the $1,000 per election limit on individual contributions. The move was completely legal and was accurately reported in the PAC's required contributions and expenditure report.

The Legislature's leadership recognized the loophole and agreed to put the law on the interim work list. The committee took it up and imposed limits on PACs of $3,500 per election, a figure further reduced via amendments last week in the House to $2,300 for all but statewide campaigns. The limit there is $4,600 per election.

Unfortunately, the interim committee decided to increase the individual campaign contribution limit to $3,500 per election, or $7,000 for the election cycle. The majority of the committee reasoned that the limit has not been raised since the mid-1970s so asserted that an inflation adjustment is in order. (Too bad they don't bring the same reasoning to the state's minimum wage. Oh, well.)

Worse, the interim committee eliminated the overall individual limit of $25,000.

Research by the ESPC's Sarah Gorin revealed that on average, it cost about $11,000 to $12,000 in 2006 to win a contested legislative campaign. The proposed contribution limit is out of proportion to these costs. Just three or four people could fund a winning campaign.

Campaigns for the governorship recently have cost about $1 million. The new limit would enable candidates for governor to shrink their pool of contributors substantially.

During debate in the House, opponents of the higher limits warned about public cynicism toward the role of money in politics and worried about its corrosive effects. The state should be moving toward broader funding of its politics, not making it possible for a few financially-able individuals to dominate the process.

The irony here is that under the proposed higher limits, the situation in Natrona County could repeat itself under the new law. The Committee to Elect Natrona County Candidates could contribute $4,600 to a single candidate. Combine that with the $7,000 that its principal could give in an election cycle and there it is: $11,600 to a single candidate from a single person.

We'll offer amendments Tuesday morning to restore the old limits. We'll also propose a second amendment to remove a House-approved provision that exempts some large contributions made within a week of election day from timely reporting requirements. The exemption applies if the contribution comes from the candidate or from his or her immediate family. In the last week of a campaign, the law should require reporting of any contribution of $1,000 or more within one business day.

HB 3 - Campaign Finance - Electronic filing

This idea is made for a large state like Wyoming where most voters live many miles away from the Capitol, where the written reports are now sent. The bill will require all candidates to file contribution and expenditure reports electronically, beginning in 2010. The information will go into a searchable database managed by the Secretary of State. Anyone with an internet connection will be able to access the information and determine who their favorite -- and most hated -- organizations are supporting.

The measure serves both the need for transparency and accountability in the political process.

As things stand now, campaign spending reports are muddled, with candidates committing various, very human errors in arithmetic, transposing numbers, skipping entries, etc. Our own research efforts found some reports simply impossible to straighten out so they made sense.

Secretary of State Max Maxfield, deputy Pat Arp and Elections Director Peggy Nighswonger deserve high praise for preparing and supporting this bill.