Idahoans aren’t ready for a big shake-up on how campaigns are financed, but that’s not stopping a handful of lawmakers from trying to inject the idea into people’s minds in hopes of it eventually catching on.
In what is becoming an annual tradition at the Idaho Legislature, Republican leadership recently quashed an effort to uproot how elections are funded in legislative and statewide races. The bill, which would have created a public election fund by putting a 10 percent surcharge on all civil fines, died because it couldn’t get a hearing.
“We’ve rejected it for years,” said Majority Leader Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. “Taxpayers shouldn’t have to fund an election. Even though it’s fines, it’s still public revenue.”
Sponsor Sen. David Langhorst, D-Boise, said it is still somewhat of a victory that Senate Bill 1290 was printed, allowing the public to access it and hear about the concept, which is patterned after similar laws in Arizona, Maine and Vermont.
Under the system, candidates would volunteer to limit their campaign spending, receiving the majority of their cash from the public account.
“I think it’s the best way we have seen to get the special interest money out of campaigns and politics,” Langhorst said. “I think there needs to be more public uproar about money in politics in order to make that idea viable.”
The Secretary of State’s Office is offering three other campaign finance bills, which are getting a better reception without any real opposition. All three passed unanimously in the House this week.
But none of these bills attempts to change the current system. Instead they clean up, clarify and better define how campaign cash is spent in Idaho.
“All these bills just give guidance,” said Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst, adding that they follow federal guidelines for donating to campaigns and on how that money is spent by elected officials and candidates.
Perhaps the most significant is House Bill 415, which limits how much money a candidate can receive from a trade association, labor union or collective bargaining organization. The bill would prevent splinter groups of these organizations from being considered separate and thereby able to avoid contribution limits.
House Bill 556 would restrict personal use of campaign funds. At the center of the bill is the “irrespective test”: Would the elected official or candidate have spent the money on a certain item or event even if he or she weren’t in office or seeking an elected position?
It clarifies that campaign funds can’t pay for expenses such as vacations, meals, auto expenses and country club memberships.
The bill passed the Senate State Affairs Committee Friday and will now go to the full Senate for debate.
During the public hearing Davis asked Secretary of State Ben Ysura how the bill would keep opponents from besmirching elected officials for legitimate expenses under the law, such as playing in the governor’s golf tournament.
“It’s not going to stop some enterprising opponent or the newspaper from writing a story,” Ysursa said. “I can’t stop that.”
The bill comes after a controversy over Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s continuing use of campaign funds for lunches near the state Capitol. The governor maintains the expenses are related to holding office, and he would prefer not to charge taxpayers for them.
House Bill 414 would require campaign treasurers for candidates who lose in the primary election to continue filing campaign finance reports until all the money is gone or until a campaign debt is repaid.
If signed into law by Kempthorne, all three of these measures would take effect immediately, meaning all legislators and statewide candidates up for election this year would have to abide by the new rules.
Langhorst doesn’t think these proposals get at the true problem, which he said is the amount of money spent on political campaigns.
He thinks a publicly financed system is a true shake-up. Langhorst said the voluntary system would stop special interests from controlling legislation, fix the public perception of political corruption and make it easier for people to run for office.
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said that Idaho’s sunshine laws already let voters know who is giving more than $25 to a campaign.
“People can go to the Internet or the Secretary of State’s Office and see all the money I’ve received and where it was spent,” Keough said.
“Going to a public system takes away an individual’s right to donate money to who they want.”
Coeur d’Alene ophthalmologist Justin StormoGipson is a board member of Idahoans for Fair Elections and hopes the idea of publicly funded campaigns will catch on, noting that the Portland City Council recently passed a similar system for city elections.
“Any effort to help people to understand what it is and educate the public is a worthwhile effort,” he said. “I stood at the fair in a booth here and talked to hundreds of people about it. It takes about three minutes to understand the concept.”
Even though the campaign finance reform isn’t popular, lawmakers are so far supporting Senate Bill 1365, which would clarify what lobbying is and which conversations lobbyists are required to report.
Langhorst, Keough and Davis have all signed on to the bipartisan measure, which would change existing law to say that lobbyist conversations about legislation with all holders of public office – such as the governor, attorney general and secretary of state – must be reported, rather than just conversations with legislators.
Lawmakers are looking into ways of improving government transparency and ethics after incidents involving former state Sen. Jack Noble, who resigned last year on the verge of a Senate vote to expel him for ethics violations.
Transparency issues also arose recently when Kempthorne’s former chief of staff, Phil Reberger, registered as a lobbyist after the Secretary of State’s Office opened a formal investigation into whether he was acting as a lobbyist for Unisys Corp. The Virginia-based company recently was awarded a contract with the state to begin managing state Medicaid claims in 2008.
At the time, Reberger wasn’t registered as a lobbyist.
“It forces a system of integrity and honesty,” Keough said.
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