Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Campaign Finance - Dzwonkowski gets one right

I don't often agree with editorials from the Detroit Free Press, but I do with most of his Ron Dzwonkowski's opinion piece "RON DZWONKOWSKI: Cash 'n' politics" in today's Free Press.

This system is protected to a large extent by the First Amendment rights of free speech and petitioning the government "for a redress of grievances," which is the umbrella right for lobbying. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that campaigns can be regulated, but getting Congress or a state legislature to do so is like asking a junkie to slow down on the heroin. And every time there is a new limit or regulation enacted, it takes about one election for the folks with the money to figure a way to keep the!juice flowing.

So how can the public interest best be protected by this system, which, time and again, has given rise to crime and scandal in the form of votes and influence being bought and sold for personal gain?

The best defense the system allows is disclosure. Instant. You give, we know. Money spent? An open checkbook. Politicians may not be able to balance a budget, but most of them employ people who can keep track of a checkbook. Do it online for all political accounts and publish every transaction. Technology makes this possible. Instead of reports every six months, the PACs ought to be reporting every detail of activity within 24 hours. And no fake names. Let's require that the source and destination of all money moving for political purposes be clearly identifiable.

There's no way to get all the money out of the system, but there are ways for the public to know, at once, who's giving and who's taking. That will slow down the flow, guaranteed, because not all investors will want to be instantly exposed. But the less money available, the less the temptation for those who think a political career should be a ticket to Easy Street.

And that's the way it should be.

Those that know me know that I take campaign finance issues very seriously.

I've treasured several organizations over the years, including PAC's, candidate committees, and ballot question committees on the state level, so I speak from experience on this subject. I've never treasured a federal organization, but many of the general concepts are the same outside of that damn BICRA aka McCain/Feingold. All state level committees file with the Secretary of State and the federal organizations file with the FEC.

On the state level, we have the very user-unfriendly MERTS system for electronic filing required for all organizations which raise $20,000. I despise MERTS, but one of my committees may break the $20,000 mark next year, so I have to be ready.

Currently, Candidate committees, political parties, and ballot question committees are required to file pre-election reports 11 days before the election, post election reports 30 days after the election, and annual statements due January 31.

PAC's and "Independent Committees" (What large PAC's are called at the state level) are required to file triannual statements with the Sec of State. In even number years, those are April 25, July 25, and October 25. In odd number years, January 31, July 25, and October 25.

For all committees, late contribution reports are required for any donation between the 15th and 3rd day before an election. Those are not on campaign finance forms, and can be on plain paper. They just need to be sent to the Secretary of State's office 48 hours after the transaction.

Those all refer to Michigan law, not federal law.

Now these filings are a pain in the arse to put it mildly. I know that from firsthand experience. I understand and support these disclosure recommendations anyway. Every transaction I make I put in an excel file the day it happened. I can update it through MERTS at the same time if it's required, which saves work in the long run. Secondly, the one good thing about MERTS is that now the search function allows me to find out who donated to what if that committee goes through MERTZ. If the committee does not use MERTS, I can still find the donor records by searching through all the pages of the committee. That's a pain, but it's still possible. Part of my election decisions, especially in non-partisan elections, is based on the donations a candidate received. Someone who gived $10,000 to Ban all Guns PAC or Increase Taxes PAC is not going to get my vote. Campaign finance records give us all a chance to see who puts their money where their mouths are.

The problem under current law is that there is not much time between the election and the filing date. Currently, it's easy for us all to sandbag our records until right before the election. In fact, we have no choice due to the close of books dates which are usually a week before the due date. This is one of the main points Dzwonkowski raises, and one I agree with. 7-14 days is not a lot of time for me to research campaign records between a PAC filing, and the August Primary or November General Election.

Now PAC's are probably the least of the campaign finance problems today. PAC's are hard money, and it is illegal for corporate (both profit and non-profit) money to go to a PAC. There are also hard money limits for PAC's. $500 for Political and $5000 are the limits for Independent PAC's on the state level. There IS full disclosure required for PAC's as well. If we as voters make the effort (most don't, sad to say), we can find who donates to which committee.

The biggest problems we have are these 527's, 501c3's, 501c4's, and Foundations which do not have to give political reports. I don't know who donated to them. One of the very few things frequent commenter Kevin S. and I agree on is full disclosure online of the contributions and expenditures of these organizations. I don't support any censorship or limitations of grassroots participation like Mr. McCain does, but I do support full disclosure 100%. I have nothing to hide with my political donations or my donations to 527's/501c groups. Full disclosure will severely limit the money laundering, while still allow grassroots politics.

Lastly, to anyone considering a run for office, make sure you have a good treasurer who understands (or is willing to learn) campaign finance law. It's an extremely important, but often overlooked position. In my very own district, Rep Joe Hune's opponent in 2004, Edmund Senkowski did not file his campaign statements and owes over $3000 in fines. The treasurer there didn't do his job, and both he and Senkowski suffered because of it. My speculation is that he didn't know what he was doing.

For those interested campaign finance information is found here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It’s scary, but I might actually agree with you here. The solution would be publicly financed campaigns, but that’s a utopian solution.