Long, testy debate on a bill moving around departments that deal with lobbying, ethics and campaign finance reporting ends in a close vote. Opponents say there wasn’t ample time to review how creating a new board and department to deal with the three functions would affect the work.
Lots of discussion on moving around IT people. The worry seems to be focused on moving campaign finance reporting out of the purview of the state Board of Elections.
I wonder how this is going to change the timeliness and accessibility of the reports. Since money is the mother’s milk of politics, reporting on money is the mother’s milk of campaign coverage. How the board that’s overseeing this work is appointed, how efficient it is and how responsive it is to the public is going to dictate how open and transparent our elections will be.
Shifting this around just prior to a monster election year seems like a case of terrifically bad timing – or worse.
Rep. Deborah Ross, who said the people in the department have raised concern about the measure, offered an amendment to make it a study bill, but that was soundly defeated. So, what’s the rush?
Here’s what Democracy NC had to say about it:
Shotgun Merger of Agencies Shields Officials from Scrutiny, Hundreds of Campaign Reports Are Already Not Audited
A nonpartisan watchdog group is sharply criticizing a proposal in the state Senate’s budget bill to merge and cut the funding for three agencies that now oversee the ethical conduct and campaign activities of state legislators, thousands of other public officials, and hundreds of lobbyists.
The proposal would combine the State Board of Elections, State Ethics Commission and the lobbying regulation division of the Secretary of State’s office into a new agency by January 1, 2012, and put it under the control of General Assembly leaders. The newly created State Board of Elections and Ethics would have a smaller staff, less money and a nine-member board with six members appointed by legislative leaders and three by the governor.
“These are the agencies that guard the public’s trust in government. They hold officials accountable for the honest performance of their duties, and they’re already straining to do their jobs right with limited resources,” said Bob Hall, executive director of the Democracy North Carolina. “The way this merger is being pushed so rapidly, crammed inside a budget bill without a thorough study, is completely irresponsible and highly suspicious. You have to wonder if the Republicans are trying to cripple these agencies and throw them into a state of confusion during the upcoming election.”
The new agency would have 20 fewer positions (15 currently filled) and $1.4 million less a year* to register voters, administer elections, oversee the conduct of public officials and political appointees, regulate lobbying and campaign financing, and enforce more than a thousand pages of state law.
Hall said his concern over the merger was heightened after discovering one area where funding cuts are already blocking public accountability and transparency. A review by Democracy North Carolina of files at the State Board of Elections found that hundreds of campaign finance reports for candidates to the General Assembly in 2010 have not yet been audited, in violation of state law.
“The public has a right to know how money is moving through our election system, who’s cheating and who wants to buy influence,” said Hall. “More cutbacks and this shotgun merger will just shield politicians from scrutiny and reduce transparency, just the opposite of what Republicans promised.”
NC General Statute 163-278.24 says campaign reports must be examined “within four months after the date of each election” to “determine whether the statement conforms to law and to the truth.” Candidates file up to six reports during an election cycle to disclose details about their contributions and campaign spending. But due to budget cutbacks, the State Board of Elections has been forced to lay off clerical and other staff, leading to a large backlog of reports to analyze.
Democracy North Carolina discovered that 651 (44%) of the 1,492 reports filed by the winning and losing legislative candidates in the 2010 general election have not even been entered into a database for preliminary analysis by the Board of Elections staff, much less been audited for errors, missing information, and possible criminal violations.
Paper copies can be viewed through the Board’s website, but some are illegible and it’s impossible to perform the required audit until the information is keyed into the Board’s database. Getting the information from the disclosure reports into the Board’s database is the first step of the auditing process and also makes campaign contributions accessible in a searchable format on the Board’s website.
Hall noted that the Board’s database still does not contain any of the campaign reports for 2009 or 2010 for 49 of the 170 General Assembly winners, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown and House Majority Leader Paul Stam. Paper copies of the reports were submitted but they remain unprocessed.
Altogether, 405 of the 960 reports filed by the 170 legislative winners in 2010, or 42% of the reports, have not been entered into the database for processing and have not been audited.
In addition, hundreds of reports for political action committees (PACs) and local and state political parties have also not been entered into the Board’s electronic files for processing.
(You can view a committee’s report at http://www.app.sboe.state.nc.us/webapps/cf_rpt_search/ and see if the report is only an Image of the paper report or if the Data has been entered into the
Board’ s data file.)
“There’s a perception that record amounts of money flooded the General Assembly elections in 2010, but we still don’t have a handle on where it all came from, who deserves kudos for reporting accurately, and who’s violating the law by withholding information,” said Hall.
“The 2012 election will be unbelievably expensive, with hot national and state contests and more spending by secretive groups, corporations and unions following the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case,” he said. “Some politicians, but not all are just as happy to keep us in the dark.”
Hall noted that many freshmen Republicans were elected on a promise to increase transparency in government, but they submitted their disclosures report in paper form only, rather than expedite the audit process by filing them electronically.
“Instead of crippling agencies charged with protecting honest government, more candidates should be required to file reports electronically to expedite the auditing process,” he said.
(full report pdf)