UPDATE: Bill to (mostly) require electronic filing of campaign finance reports heads to House floor | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, March 26, 2015

UPDATE: Bill to (mostly) require electronic filing of campaign finance reports heads to House floor

Posted By on Thu, Mar 26, 2015 at 12:39 PM

click to enlarge DELLA ROSA: A Republican advocate for improved ethics. But will the bill have teeth? - VOTE-AR.COM
  • vote-ar.com
  • DELLA ROSA: A Republican advocate for improved ethics. But will the bill have teeth?
UPDATE: The bill failed on the House floor, 48-33, with many members not voting. Speaker Jeremy Gillam said the bill required a two-thirds supermajority for passage. I'm all worked up about this, so I wrote a separate post detailing the floor debate.

A bill by Rep. Jana Della Rosa (R-Rogers) to improve campaign finance reporting is headed to the House floor after passing out of committee Wednesday.

Much like Rep. Clarke Tucker's bill to regulate electioneering communications, Della Rosa's HB 1233 started out as a stronger piece of legislation but was watered down in the face of opposition. It remains a good bill, but now contains a loophole that could be exploited by candidates seeking to avoid transparency in disclosing their finances.

HB 1233 requires candidates for statewide and legislative elected office to file electronic reports detailing their campaign contributions (and carryover funds from campaigns) using an online system established by the Secretary of State's office. Currently, Arkansas allows candidates to file their campaign finance reports on paper, rather than electronically. Although the Secretary of State makes those reports available online, they're in PDF format and therefore not searchable.

To understand why it's so important to make campaign finance record searchable, just remember the story of disgraced judge Mike Maggio and nursing home magnate Michael Morton, a prolific contributor to PACs that have bankrolled judicial campaigns around the state. Maggio pleaded guilty this January to federal bribery charges that alleged he lowered a civil damages settlement against a nursing home owned by Morton essentially in exchange for his financial support in Maggio's race for the Court of Appeals.

Knowing that, it's surely fair to demand to know what other candidates — judges, legislators, constitutional officers — have also received campaign money from Morton or any of his associated PACs over the years. Without electronic filing, the only way to answer that question is to manually dig through thousands of pages of documents, either in paper format or PDF. With an electronic record, the right keywords can allow a researcher to perform the same task in minutes.

There's one problem with the bill: It exempts candidates from the electronic filing requirement if they file an affidavit asserting that they did not "have access to the technology necessary to submit reports in electronic form; and submitting reports in electronic form would constitute a substantial hardship."

Della Rosa told the Times that there was no formal test or verification of what constitutes a "substantial hardship." 

"It would have added cost to the system to put a process in place for this and adding cost would have killed the bill," she said in an email. "However, the affidavits will be required to be scanned and posted on the [Secretary of State's] website so everyone will know exactly who is claiming the exemption. My hope is that political pressure will keep everyone honest. If it doesn’t, we can come back next session and fix any loopholes that are found. Each paper filing will require its own affidavit so those searching the database will know exactly which reports were not filed electronically and need to be searched by hand. I believe this will be a small amount."

Perhaps Della Rosa is right that few candidates will try to wiggle out of the electronic reporting requirements. I hope so, but I can think of two reasons for pessimism.

First, there is already an electronic filing system in place, but it's not mandated by law to use it. In other words, it's clear that candidates haven't been keen on imposing transparency upon themselves in the past. When HB 1233 was originally brought up in committee earlier this month, it failed for lack of support. According to the Democrat-Gazette (paywall), the one legislator who openly opposed it was Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville), who said during the meeting that he has an "old accountant" who doesn't work well with computers. Blue Hog Report later pointed out that Ballinger's "old accountant," despite being so befuddled by electronic reporting systems, evidently understands the Internet well enough to have a LinkedIn profile.

Second, as shown by the tragic farce that has been Amendment 94, compliance with ethics laws is driven more by a sense of social norms than it is the actual spirit of the law. Sure, an ethics amendment passed by popular consent of the voters just five months ago explicitly said legislators can't take gifts from lobbyists — but once the gifts started flowing through a loophole in the law, they didn't stop. If everyone else in the legislature is doing it, it must be OK, right?

I worry that despite the good intentions of the bill, something similar will happen here. If most candidates file an affidavit to claim "substantial hardship," it will just become another part of the normal, contorted political process. Like free lunches and drinks from lobbyists, it won't be seen as corruption or abuse in the eyes of those who practice it, but something more insidious — business as usual.

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