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Editorial: Ysursa’s act deserves kudos – and more teeth

When Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa handed down two fines for campaign disclosure violations last week, he closed his letters by reminding the organizations involved that he’s serious about enforcing the state’s Sunshine Law.

The two groups – Idaho Citizens for Justice and Citizens for Commonsense Solutions – had invested a combined $40,000 on campaign literature touting Supreme Court Justice Roger Burdick and attacking his challenger, Judge John Bradbury. They had neglected, however, to follow all the steps required of such organizations in the way they account for the funds that are raised and spent on a political cause.

Thus, Ysursa fined the two groups the $50 a day prescribed by law for their delinquency in meeting various reporting deadlines. That added up to $1,300 for Idaho Citizens for Justice and $600 for Citizens for Commonsense Solutions.

To put the matter in perspective, the total of $1,900 is less than the sales tax would have been on a $40,000 retail purchase. Or, think of it as overhead.

Burdick won last month’s election, by the way, and, for the record, The Spokesman-Review endorsed him. But all elections benefit when voters know who’s really underwriting the messages that come out under such high-minded names as “Citizens for Justice” and “Commonsense Solutions.”

Campaign finance disclosure doesn’t eliminate the influence of money in politics, but it helps the public understand a little more about whose interests are at stake. Still, even that is meaningless if the information isn’t reported until the election is over and it’s too late for a voter to factor it into his decision.

Unfortunately, despite decades of experience with disclosure laws, it’s all too common for candidates and political organizations to dodge the requirements, then respond with implausible claims that they didn’t understand what was expected. The fact is, offices like Ysursa’s – and Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed’s – are all too happy to provide campaign groups with all the information they need.

As the 2010 campaign season picks up speed, we applaud Ysursa for his actions last week. We also think the law should give him authority to impose steeper, more meaningful fines. The consequence of violating a law intended to keep elections aboveboard should be a true penalty, not just a cost of doing business.

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