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A Side Order of Sunshine

At the beginning of 2013, the Governor and General Assembly promised to pass major ethics reform legislation. After convening a special House GOP Caucus study committee to develop the legislation, the House passed a reform bill this past Spring which now awaits consideration in the Senate.

The bill contains several significant reforms. On a broad structural basis, it eliminates the Senate and House ethics committees along with the State Ethics Commission and replaces them with a new commission. The new entity will have the power to investigate and sanction legislators and statewide office holders.

The bill eliminates Leadership PACs, requires lawmakers to disclose all sources of income, requires lobbyists to register if they lobby local government or school districts and eliminates the blackout period before elections when candidates can avoid disclosing donors.

While these are important improvements, the bill does not bring greater transparency to contribution disclosures or clarify legitimate campaign expenses.  A little more sunshine could make the current bill more beneficial to voters.

As we know from reading the news, campaign expenses present the greatest trap for candidates and elected officials. Almost all of the media reports about ethics violations over the last several years have included significant campaign expense problems.

We have read about politicians using campaign funds to buy iPads, clothing, fruit baskets, football tickets and even the occasional purchase at the Badd Kitty Club in Charleston. Mundane reimbursements for travel and cell phone bills have come under scrutiny. Even under our current restrictions, politicians clearly don’t know what they don’t know – or at least they don’t have an efficient procedure to obtain clarification.

Which begs the question – why should a governmental commission define and regulate campaign expenses when we have the technology to enable the public to provide oversight?

Imagine if candidates were allowed to disburse campaign funds as they saw fit but were required to post them to the new commission’s website in real-time. The immediate availability of these disbursements for public scrutiny would act as a much better deterrent to questionable spending habits than a set of vague regulations. By having easy public access to disbursements, politicians would think twice about that Badd Kitty purchase, lest it end up in the media or in a primary challenger’s mail piece.

The same goes for contributions. Instead of limiting individual contributions, we should allow individuals the freedom to make unlimited campaign donations – a freedom that several conservative justices on the United States Supreme Court view as a First Amendment right.

We would eliminate quarterly reporting and require candidates to post contributions to the website in real-time and make full disclosure of all individuals involved. All other contributions from corporations, PACs and other non-individual donors would be banned or further limited as decided by the courts. If an individual wants to give $10,000 to a Senate candidate, he would have to identify himself and not hide behind 10 separate corporations.

Some people may view individual contribution limits as sacrosanct, but at least 12 states do not limit these types of contributions to candidates standing for election to statewide or legislative office. As of 2012, these states were Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Virginia.

On a practical level, each candidate would upload contributions or expenses as processed to the new commission – much like the IRS requirement on employers when tax deposits are withheld from employees. Failure to do so would result in stiff penalties. The commission would audit the timing and totals of the disclosures rather than the candidate’s intent.

This approach would allow citizens to determine if candidates are making wise decisions and transform the new ethics commission into a disclosure hub. It would also remove the danger of the commission from being used as a political weapon.

Ethics laws are created to protect the integrity of the political process. In our society, we have determined that money drives the process. To an astute voter, how a candidate handles his campaign money could reveal more about his integrity than a dozen political mailers. Our ethics reform law should require candidates to reveal their stewardship skills and voters the transparency to judge a candidates intent. It should not add to a maze of regulations that camouflage the dishonest.