Senate panel unanimously backs two campaign transparency bills

From the Idaho Press

by Betsy Z. Russell

BOISE — Two election transparency bills cleared the Senate State Affairs Committee on unanimous votes on Friday, aimed at providing more timely access to campaign finance reporting in non-election years and ensuring candidates for office provide contact information.

SB 1337, from committee Chair Patti Anne Lodge, would close a gap in Idaho’s campaign finance reporting system that in non-election years, requires only reporting of contributions of more than $1,000, which must be reported within 48 hours. Full reporting, including all contributions or spending, currently isn’t required until the end of the year. Then, during the year of the election, there’s full monthly reporting.

“This is something that I’ve been working on for several years and that’s campaign finance transparency,” Lodge, R-Huston, told the committee. In 2021, a non-election year, $11.9 million was donated to 497 candidates and $7.2 million was spent on campaign activities, she said. But only the individual 48-hour reports were public before the Jan. 10 year-end report had to be filed; people had to sort through individual donation reports and add them up to get even a part of the full picture. “This is not what transparency of election contributions is about,” Lodge said. “Our citizens are calling for fair elections; that includes campaign financing of the campaigns.”

Under SB 1337, even in a non-election year, monthly reporting would start as soon as a candidate has raised or spent $500. That would apply to all campaigns, Lodge said.

She said with Idaho’s new electronic filing system, it’s easy to do.

“There have been a multitude of updates and improvements in our campaign filing system reports,” she said. “The system is friendly and easy to use now. This process in years past has been cumbersome and difficult. And I must commend our Secretary of State Lawerence Denney for his leadership in developing this reporting system.”

Elinor Chehey of the League of Women Voters of Idaho testified in favor of the bill, saying, “In 1974, the League of Women Voters of Idaho organized a successful campaign to get the Sunshine Law on the ballot. This was based on our goal to ensure transparency and the public’s right to know who is using money to influence elections. I carried a few petitions for the campaign.”

It passed with 77.4% of the vote, she noted. “SB 1337 helps to close a gap in the state’s new online campaign finance reporting system,” Chehey said, urging support for the bill.

Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane also spoke in favor of the bill. “I think Chairman Lodge has done an excellent job trying to push this forward,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been coming in during the non-election years. … We just didn’t anticipate campaigns beginning as early as they are beginning now.”

Lodge said, “Citizens deserve to understand who is financing campaigns in Idaho. This legislation was developed with the help of the secretary of state.”

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said, “I just wanted to thank our chairman for bringing this legislation. Her persistence over the years for campaign transparency is much appreciated by me and I think many other people.” He moved to send the bill to the full Senate with a recommendation that it “do pass.” Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously.

Lodge called on Ken Burgess, lobbyist for the Idaho Press Club, to present the other transparency bill, SB 1338. It requires that campaign contact information, including a phone number and email address, be included in declarations of candidacy, and clarifies that that information is publicly available upon request. “There has been some interpretation of one of the sections in there related to the electronic filing system that perhaps that information is not available,” Burgess said, “and some entities have had challenges getting that information in the past couple of years.”

That has included the press, civic groups organizing candidate forums, and even county clerks.

McGrane testified in favor of SB 1338 as well. “We had a contested recount in Meridian in November,” he said. “And one of the candidates who was involved in that, I had to scour the internet, including going on LinkedIn and trying to connect with the person to get them a message, because I could not find contact information … to let them know that they would be involved in a recount.” He said the bill would be “extremely helpful.”

“I think you all recognize as candidates, once you put yourself out there, it seems reasonable,” McGrane said. “The candidates can determine what the best number is to reach them at, but that we be able to contact candidates I think is pretty important.”

Chehey also testified in favor of SB 1338 on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Idaho. She has chaired the league’s “Vote 411” project since 2018, which allows voters to look up which candidates are on the ballot in their area and see the candidates’ positions, in their own words. “We do not support or oppose candidates,” Chehey said. “Our purpose is to encourage active participation of citizens in government.”

Putting the project together requires emailing each candidate, she said, which was “fairly easy” in 2018, because the Secretary of State Office’s campaign finance website included phone numbers for candidates and their campaign treasurers. But, she said, in 2020, those numbers no longer were on the site, nor would the office release them.

“Since 2020, we have had to Google candidate names and hope to find a candidate’s website or Facebook page,” she said. “Some candidates have no website, or are up very late in the season, so they may get left out.”

Lodge told the committee, “Elinor contacted me this last summer about this legislation, and so she’s one of the bright lights that has brought it forward.”

Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, moved to send SB 1338 to the full Senate with a recommendation that it “do pass,” and Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, seconded the motion. It passed unanimously.

To become law, both bills still would need to pass the full Senate, clear a House committee, pass the full House and receive the governor’s signature.

From the Idaho Press

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