A bipartisan working group of Idaho lawmakers on Wednesday unanimously rejected a proposal to eliminate all of Idaho’s limits on campaign contributions, and instead endorsed changes in the state’s Sunshine Law to require more frequent and more detailed disclosures, including adding new reporting in local races and requiring information about who’s behind shadowy outside groups that run independent expenditure campaigns in the state.
“We’re struggling now to get confidence in the system,” said Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, co-chair of the Legislature’s interim working group on campaign finance and ethics reform. “Changing these contribution limits or trying to eliminate them, God forbid, would just send the absolute wrong message. We need to get transparency and faith in the system back.”
House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, agreed. “Eliminating caps would have been the opposite of reform,” he said. “We’re supposed to be improving our campaign finance laws, not making them worse. Eliminating the caps on campaign contributions would have led to more corruption, less accountability and put Idaho candidates up to the highest bidder.”
Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, also agreed. He said he didn’t like the idea of mailboxes being stuffed and radio broadcasts brimming with ads paid for by a single deep-pocketed donor, rather than candidates reaching out to their neighbors and fellow citizens. “I appreciate where we’re headed,” Dixon said. “I think it should give more transparency in the process.”
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The proposal to do away with Idaho’s limits, which were enacted by the state’s voters in the Sunshine Law Initiative in 1974, came as legislative staffers compiled the various ideas that had been tossed around in the panel’s earlier discussions into a proposed draft bill.
Legislative staffer Kristin Ford told the panel that removing limits on how much an individual or corporation can contribute to a particular candidate “sounds maybe a little bit radical.” But she noted that courts increasingly are viewing political contributions as free speech. “Our neighbor Montana has just had their contribution limits overturned in court, it’s still on appeal,” she said. “There seems to be a progression toward that direction. I think it’s not insane to get the horse before the cart and just eliminate them yourselves, with the caveat that we won’t have limits but we will have increased disclosure that we hadn’t had before.”
She also noted that Idaho’s existing limits are higher those that were struck down in Montana.
Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney rejected the idea. “I’m perfectly OK with the contribution limits we have,” he said. The current limits for donations to Idaho legislative candidates from an individual or entity are $1,000 for the primary election and $1,000 for the general election; the limit for donations to statewide candidates are $5,000 for each.
Denney said he and members of his staff met with Ford, representatives of the Attorney General’s office and others to review the draft proposal, and, “We agreed that there has been no challenge to our campaign limits currently.”
Ford then put together a more modest draft bill, including Denney’s recommendations and excluding the elimination of contribution limits. The committee considered both drafts, and opted unanimously for the more modest one, with some additional tweaks.
“I’m really happy that we’ve got the process going,” Denney said. “I don’t think everything that’s in this draft today will be the same when the legislative session comes along, but I think there’ll be significant change.”
Upgrading the technology for Idaho’s campaign finance reporting system — another move the committee is eyeing — also will make a big difference, Denney said. He told the lawmakers he’s requesting $1.2 million in his budget for the technology upgrade next year, plus $90,000 a year in additional operating expenses.
“I think when we get the technology, we can be a lot more transparent,” Denney said.
The other changes that lawmakers on the panel backed Wednesday, which still will be refined as the next version of the bill is drafted before a Nov. 27 meeting, include:
- Increasing fines for violations from the current $250 to up to $25,000.
- Requiring monthly campaign finance reports year-round if there’s any activity to report, up from the current requirement for filing only on certain dates before and after elections.
- Prohibiting political action committees from receiving more than $1,000 from another entity that hasn’t also registered and disclosed its funders, whether in-state or out-of-state; and requiring all committees engaged in campaigning in Idaho to disclose their leadership and main funders.
- Extending Idaho’s Sunshine Law to all elections, even at the local or school district level and including recall elections, once a candidate has raised or spent more than $500.
- Including the internet and social media in the definition of “electioneering communications” that trigger reporting requirements.
- Allowing candidates to have only one political fundraising committee. If they switch to run for a different office, they’d be allowed to transfer the funds from the old committee to the new one, subject to some constraints if the contribution limits that apply to the two offices are different.
- Specifying that a “person” subject to reporting requirements means any individual, group or organization, “regardless of tax status or organizational purpose.”
Fred Birnbaum of the Idaho Freedom Foundation spoke against the broader reporting requirements for organizations. “If donors to organizations were revealed they could easily be subject to all sorts of personal harassment and intimidation given the ability of people and groups to use social media,” he told the lawmakers. “The intimidation could even extend to their employment and livelihood.”
John Eaton and Alex LaBeau of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry spoke in support of the changes but called for adjusting some details regarding dates and logistics of filing.
Phil McGrane, chief deputy Ada County clerk, also spoke in support of the changes, and said county clerks support the Idaho Secretary of State’s office becoming a central repository where anyone could seek out information on campaign donations at any level of government in the state, including city, county or local taxing districts.
The panel also received a draft bill from Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, modeled after a Utah law, to give Idaho its first-ever financial disclosure requirements for office holders and candidates; Idaho is one of just two states with no such requirements. The proposal would require income sources and investments worth more than $5,000 to be identified, but not quantified. The panel will review that proposal and consider it at its next meeting Nov. 27.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Dixon said, “I’m glad we’re doing this. … Anything we can do to strengthen the public’s confidence is very important.”
“I think we’re making headway, I think we are. People are wanting change, and we’ll get it,” Wood said.