A new ethics drive might mitigate the rise in independent spending in elections | Arkansas Blog

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A new ethics drive might mitigate the rise in independent spending in elections

Posted By on Sat, Nov 1, 2014 at 7:33 AM

click to enlarge IN THE DARK: Attacks ads such as this one against Nate Steel lack 'express advocacy' and thus fall outside financial disclosure requirements.
  • IN THE DARK: Attacks ads such as this one against Nate Steel lack 'express advocacy' and thus fall outside financial disclosure requirements.
Michael Wickline reported extensively this morning in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on the rise of "independent expenditures" in Arkansas political races. He outlined some $2.2 million in spending on races from state legislature to attorney general (the biggest fight).

I'd add a coda: And that ain't all.

These expenditures are only those that advocate election or defeat of a candidate

The spending does not covereven more shadowy groups that raise huge sums in secret and then spend them on attack ads. Because the ads do not expressly advocate a vote for or against a candidate, their activities are not covered by the state disclosure law. You know the kind I mean: "Mark Pryor drowns kittens. Call Mark Pryor and tell him to stop."

Disclosure laws have become not much more than a fig leaf. The Center for Individual Freedom, one of the biggest dark money supporters of Leslie Rutledge, the Republican nominee for attorney general, is on a campaign nationwide to strike down any sort of disclosure requirements for its spending. What you don't know can hurt you, such as in election of unqualified people like Rutledge over Democrat Nate Steel.

The Arkansas law is porous in other ways. How else could nursing home magnate Michael Morton buy a majority on the Arkansas Supreme Court, plus provide a huge portion of Leslie Rutledge's finances when the individual contribution limit is $2,000? Easy. He contributes the maximum to candidates like Rutledge not only in his name but in the name of each corporate entity he set up to operate dozens of nursing homes (themselves individually set up to further protect him from heavy liability in lawsuits). He has $80,000 or more bet on Rutledge, who, if she wins, will investigate Medicaid fraud in nursing homes. He also contributes the maximum to PACs, sometimes multiple PACs created for essentially the same purpose (remember Mike Maggio?). He's put $250,000 easily into key judicial and attorney general races.

We need to outlaw direct corporate contributions to campaigns in Arkansas. Issue 3 on the ballot would do that, but it is larded with bad features and the term limits crowd is going to defeat it. Ethics advocates who got rolled on this measure by double-crossing Republican legislators during the legislative session will be back in 2016 with an independent ethics measure that will be stronger and shorn of sops for greedy lawmakers.

In a perfect world, it would end lobbyist wining and dining. It would close the Michael Morton loophole on contribution limits. It would also end corporate contributions to PACs. They'l have to be individually financed. It would keep the lobby swinging door a two-year wait. There's talk about making lobbyists wear ID tags at the Capitol, as some other states do. If we're lucky — and this would be big — the law might provide independence for the state Ethics Commission.

The Ethics Commission is woefully underfunded. Its small staff operates out of impossibly cramped quarters and mostly operates reactively, rather than, say, routinely reviewing all filings for obvious shortcomings. In the hyperpartisan era, the workload has increased substantially as opponents dig for miscues and file complaints. The Commission has made a modest request for more staff and will get a  legislative hearing the week after the election. I'm guessing it will meet resistance. It should have a funding procedure that isn't controlled by people with a grudge.

A committee formed to pass an earlier ethics initiative is still sitting on some surplus money and meeting and talking about such ethics reform specifics. Regnat Populus.

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