Who’s paying your politicians? New system could help you tell — but it needs money

Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, in his office in the state Capitol on Thursday.
Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, in his office in the state Capitol on Thursday. The Spokesman-Review

Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney says he’s looking at not being able to make the required timeline to launch a new statewide, online, searchable campaign finance system in time for the 2020 presidential election.

That’s after a series of three votes Thursday morning left money for the project out of his next fiscal year’s budget.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee defeated two motions. One, from Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, was to fund Denney’s budget in full as requested, which died on a 6-13 vote. A second from Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, included Denney’s request of $1.29 million for an election technology upgrade, while leaving out another request for a new cybersecurity analyst. That was defeated on an 8-11 vote.

The final budget motion that passed, on a 12-2 vote with just Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Wintrow dissenting, left the technology upgrade out, along with the cybersecurity staffer. Reps. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, and Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, who crafted the budget, said they thought the money for the tech upgrade could be sought in a supplemental appropriation next year, after there’s more information to present next fall about just what the money would fund. It’s part of a move in JFAC this session to apply more scrutiny to big technology requests, a move that includes bringing on some technical expertise within the JFAC staff starting in the next budget year, which starts July 1.

“That’s too late for us – that’s six months too late,” Denney said. “We have to go to bid in, I’d say, at the very latest, September.”

Denney said the new system – which would make campaign finance reports from both local and state candidates available in a free, centralized, searchable database, a big step up from the current system – needs to be up and running by Jan. 1, 2020, to be available for the March 2020 presidential primary. The system was recommended by a legislative interim committee this year that backed more frequent and more detailed campaign finance reporting, and also was recommended for funding by Gov. Butch Otter. Denney said it’ll take his office 12 to 15 months to get the system in place; he’d like to have a RFP out by July 1, 2018.

Denney said he was “caught unawares” Thursday morning when JFAC sliced the election technology upgrade out of his budget for next year. “We didn’t think that there was any problem,” he said. “I’m not sure they understand the bid process, how long it takes us to actually get that in place.”

“I can’t commit money unless I have an appropriation,” he said. “For me to do an RFP on a competitive bid – I have to have an appropriation that says it’s going to be there.”

Youngblood said, “I think we all want to get there, no question. We all want to do it correctly and timely and professionally, and not just, ‘Here’s some money, go for it.’”

Legislation requiring the increased campaign finance reporting at both the local and state level was introduced earlier this session in the House State Affairs Committee, but hasn’t had a full hearing. Its implementation date wasn’t until July 1, 2019, however; Denney said he expected lawmakers might want to break the big, complex bill up into smaller pieces, and it could still be approved next year and come in time for the 2020 election.

But, he said, “If we don’t get the technology in place, we can’t do some of the things that are in that bill.”

Denney, who served in the House for 18 years and was speaker of the House before he was first elected Secretary of State in 2014, said, “It’s frustrating. This morning was the first time we heard. Our budget was gutted this morning.”

He said he wondered if some lawmakers were concerned that the bottom line showed a nearly 60 percent increase when the technology upgrade was included. “That was one-time money,” he said. “We’ve been working at this for a year and a half now. We’re going to miss our opportunity to have a current system going into the next presidential election.”

JFAC Co-Chair Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said JFAC has been pushing hard to increase its level of oversight on big technology upgrade funding requests. “We don’t have the expertise to say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good system,’” she said. “We just don’t think he’s ready for that money.”

Bell said there was “nothing personal, and nothing intentional to hurt him.” The JFAC members who worked on the budget, she said, “feel he can make it. It’ll be tighter.”

“It just looked premature,” she said.

Youngblood, explaining his motion to JFAC this morning, said, “Nobody wants to poke anybody in the eye and say ‘you don’t need this.’”

Anderson said, “It may in fact be a benefit, but it seemed like we were committing to something that we don’t understand all that well.”

Denney’s budget request says $1.2 million of the request for next year is for one-time spending on software modules for campaign finance reporting, lobbyist registration and election management, while $90,000 is ongoing for hosting, management, maintenance and security. It also notes that Denney will request another $800,000 one-time in 2020 for additional functions including conflict of interest disclosure, GIS mapping, and more, depending on the vendor that’s selected for the system. Additional future costs of $2 million to $3 million would be covered by Denney’s current base budget for maintenance of the state’s election system. “The proposed changes have been requested by county clerks throughout the state to lessen administrative burden and costs associated with elections,” the budget request says.

Anderson said that all adds up to $5 million. “I think we need to get a little more counsel on systems like these,” he said.

He, Youngblood and Bell noted that state Controller Brandon Woolf met with JFAC for several years and kept the joint committee informed of and involved in plans for a major $102 million upgrade of the state’s business systems before finally requesting funding this year.

Youngblood said the lawmakers haven’t gotten similar details from Denney on the election upgrade, including in a meeting on Wednesday. “It sounded like they weren’t really ready to rock and roll,” he said. “We just need to get together on this with another set of eyes.”