Bill filed to shed light on campaign donations by requiring searchable electronic reports | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Bill filed to shed light on campaign donations by requiring searchable electronic reports

Posted By on Wed, Feb 1, 2017 at 5:39 PM

DELLA ROSA: Wants legislature to be held accountable on campaign donations. (File photo) - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • DELLA ROSA: Wants legislature to be held accountable on campaign donations. (File photo)

Rep. Jana Della Rosa (R-Rogers) has revived her bill to require candidates for public office to file their campaign contribution reports electronically, rather than giving them the option to do so on a paper form. She previously introduced the ethics-enhancing measure as a freshman legislator in 2015, and promised to bring it back if it was defeated.

At the moment, most candidates in Arkansas file contribution reports on paper, despite the existence of an online option. This makes the documents all but impossible to search if one is looking to discover who donated money to whom in a given election. The secretary of state's office scans the submitted forms and makes them available online — but only in non-searchable PDF form.

If you want to find out who donated to your state senator, that's not too difficult. You can look through the monthly contribution reports for that senator. But let's say you want to know how much money a wealthy individual or a PAC or a corporation has spread around the state, and who has received that largesse. You can't get a comprehensive picture unless you look through every single filing for the hundreds and hundreds of candidates running for federal, state, local and judicial office all across Arkansas each cycle.

Della Rosa's HB 1427 would require contribution reports to be filed in electronic form through the secretary of state's website and require "the official website of the Secretary of State [to] allow for searches of campaign contribution and expenditure report information filed in electronic form." It includes a hardship provision allowing candidates to file paper reports if they attach a notarized affidavit declaring they don't have access to the necessary technology.

In 2015, many legislators were not receptive to an effort to shed light on the world of campaign finance. The bill survived a hostile reception in committee, only to die on the House floor, 48-33. Many of Della Rosa's fellow Republicans voted against it, but a number of Democrats did the same. Notably, 19 representatives — Rs and Ds alike — simply sat out the vote.

At the time, some legislators claimed they were opposed to the bill because the state's existing electronic filing system was difficult to navigate, and so in the 2016 fiscal session Della Rosa secured a $750,000 appropriation to pay for a new online system for the secretary of state's office. That system will go live in July regardless of whether this bill passes — but unless HB1427 prods elected officials into switching to electronic filing, most will likely keep using paper.

Arkansas is behind the curve on this transparency measure. The National Conference of State Legislatures says most states now require electronic filing.

The 2017 session has thus far seen an unusual number of bills seeking to limit Arkansas's Freedom of Information Act. In contrast, Della Rosa's legislation would increase sunlight and accountability in state politics.

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