Okla. Lawmakers Fight Easier Access to Candidate Information

May 2, 2006

The Oklahoma Ethics Commission is ready to go with a new computer system that would give the public instant Internet access to information about who donates what to political candidates this year.

But to the exasperation of members of the commission, both Democrats and Republicans, a politically united legislature appears ready to enact a law to deny the public’s access to candidate contribution data for at least two more years.

The legislature passed similar legislation in 2005, but it was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Brad Henry.

A bill originating in the Senate to delay implementation of the program until 2008 passed the Republican-led House last week after an amendment was attached Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City.

Ethics’ officials said the Reynolds’ amendment is impractical, does not improve the present system and would impede the public’s access to some contribution information.

Democrats are sponsors of the bill, but Republicans have shown their support with their votes. It was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Daisy Lawler, D-Comanche. It passed that legislative body, 44-0, and then got a 93-0 vote in the House after Reynolds’ amendment was adopted. The House author is Rep. Raymond McCarter, D-Marlow.

Despite those votes, the Ethics Commission voted 4-0 last week to stick by the rule and urged lawmakers to change their minds.

John Raley, a Republican appointed by Democratic Attorney General Drew Edmondson, said he was convinced after hearing testimony from staff and computer experts who worked on the system, that “it is about as fool proof as we can make it.”

“There’s no reason to change course at this juncture and bring in another system which would cost taxpayers a substantial amount of money,” Raley said.

The new system would require candidates to be responsible for Internet filings of campaign contribution and expenditure reports in campaigns that exceed $20,000 in expenditures.

Raley described as “frivolous” lawmaker arguments that they are computer illiterate. He said in this day and age, almost everyone can operate a computer and even it they can’t, they can hire someone to enter the data and file it at a nominal cost.

Ken Elliott, a member of the Commission since 1997, said a number of political action committees already are inputting data, which can be updated and submitted before deadlines for filing reports.

Elliott said similar candidate filing systems are working in other states.

He said he was not unsympathetic to lawmakers’ concerns, adding that staff has already worked out possible kinks in the system and has the capability of resolving any possible further glitches.

The simple fact, he said, is that lawmakers “don’t want to do this” and let the public know all there is to know about who is donating to their campaigns. He said he was tempted to use a descriptive term to knock down the arguments of legislators, but “I don’t want to get in trouble with my church.”

Elliott said he believes disclosure will be a blessing for the state’s political system.

“If we are going to gripe and groan about whatever evil there is in politics, the way to counter that is to disclose and the best way to disclose is to make this available on the Internet so people don’t have to go to the Ethics Commission to pull out handwritten reports.”

Marilyn Hughes, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said citizens now have to come to the ethics office in the basement of the state Capitol to look at campaign reports and are charged 25 cents per page for copies.

Hughes said that under the new system developed over the last few years, “If you want to see who Ben Brown contributed to, you can enter Brown and you’ll pull up the contributions made by Ben Brown or any other contributor.

“You can look at individual reports of committees, or PACs. You can look at a report by a candidate and see what PACs have given to that candidate and then you can double check what a PAC has given and to what candidates.”

She said under Reynolds’ amendment, a digital image would be provided on the Internet, but some reports are difficult to read. Also, she said, “you just get a picture. You can’t search by contributor or anyone else.”

The bill will go to Henry’s desk if the Senate accepts Reynolds’ amendment.

Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, said he is unconvinced that the Ethics Commission system will work and therefore supports Lawler’s legislation.

Morgan said he has adopted a “show me” attitude on the system. Asked how it can be proven that the system works if the project is not allowed to go forward, he said: “Good question.”

Raley said he did not know whether the governor would sign or veto the bill in an election year.

Paul Sund, spokesman for the governor, said Henry is in favor of electronic filing but wanted to see the bill before making a decision.

Besides Raley and Elliot, those voicing support for standing by the Internet filings for the upcoming elections were Commissioners James W. Loy of Chickasha and Don Bingham of Tulsa.

Raley and Elliott said the failure of the legislature to require electronic filing by candidates would strain the capacity of the ethics staff to perform its tasks this election cycle. The staff has been reduced from seven to six by the recent death of one staffer.

“If we don’t get this online reporting in place and mandatory by July 1, I simply don’t know how these people are going to be able to keep up with the flow of information that is going to come in,” Raley said.

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