The Idaho Legislature’s interim committee on campaign finance reform on Monday called for sharply stepping up enforcement of fines for candidates who don’t file reports or don’t file them on time.
“We need to be just a little bit more serious about that, that this is something that’s very important, and you need to follow that,” said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, co-chair of the interim panel.
The stepped-up enforcement won unanimous support from the panel, which also is weighing requirements for more detailed and more frequent campaign finance reporting; expanding reporting requirements to all levels of elections, whenever someone raises or spends $500 or more; and consolidating all of Idaho’s Sunshine reports into an easily accessible and searchable central database.
The bipartisan panel of senators and representatives is working to finalize legislation that it’ll propose to the full Legislature in January; it meets again in October.
Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney said he supports the proposal to say fines “shall” be imposed for late filers, rather than making their imposition discretionary for his office.
“I don’t particularly relish the idea of having the ability to fine one person and not another,” Denney said.
He said that’s why when he first took office, he wasn’t fining anyone for late filings, though the law allows a $50-a-day fine.
“But we did have a legislative audit that told us we should,” he told the committee. “That’s one of the findings that told us we’re not doing what the code said. So we do it with everybody.”
His office then established a policy of sending a letter to notify late filers, and if they still don’t respond, imposing the fine; that essentially gives them a five-day grace period in most cases.
Lodge said, “When you’re a legislator, you’re making laws for other people to follow. We have these campaign laws that say you have to file by a certain date. And then we had several this year that didn’t.”
Denney responded, “We’ve tried to err on the side of the candidate, because we all know that there may be times. And what we have continually done is if they do not file the report on time, after, what, five days, we call them, but we also send them a letter. And if they do not respond, then the fine starts at $50 a day from then on.”
“That’s kind of lenient,” Lodge said. “I feel that’s too lenient.”
Denney said he’s fine with imposing fines right off, if everyone is aware that that’ll be the system.
“Our hope is that we get the reports on time,” he said. “It’s not the fining that’s important to us. We want to get them on time.”
Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said he favors following the model of a Utah law that removes candidates from the ballot if they don’t file their reports on time; two Utah candidates were removed during this year’s primary election. He also suggested upping the fines for late filings from $50 per day to $250 per day.
Sen. Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs, asked, “On the collection of the $50, has that been successful in the past, has it happened a lot?”
Denney said, “Yes, it has been successful. Most people pay it. They come in and they complain about it, but they do pay it.”
Rep. Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, said she favored eliminating “any gray area” in the law. “It just kind of reminds me, those of us with children, if you ask them to do something and there’s never a consequence, how can you have confidence that they’re ever going to do something that you ask?”
Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I just wanted to express my support for the fines that we have, and instituting those as soon as possible after the deadline. … But I am not in support of the Utah model. That goes a step too far.
“From what I hear from the Secretary of State now, we’re not imposing the fines quickly or in all circumstances right now,” she said, “so if we enforce what we have already, before we step further to a model like the Utah model, perhaps we’ll get a good response.”
This year, two statewide candidates — incumbent state Superintendent of Schools Sherri Ybarra and GOP lieutenant governor nominee Janice McGeachin — filed their reports late in the primary, but faced no fines. Just two fines have been imposed so far this year, on a North Idaho Democratic legislative candidate, Alanna Brooks, who filed no reports until June 8 and was fined $400; and on the Idaho Democratic Latino Caucus, which was fined $50.
The legislative panel also worked its way through a stack of draft bills, word-smithing them and approving drafting changes, to be brought back for review at its October meeting. All votes were unanimous except one; Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, voted against a shift to requiring monthly reports during election years, from the close of primary election candidate filing through the general election. Currently, reports are due only during specific periods before the primary and before the general. As a result, none of the campaigning that’s occurring in statewide or legislative races this summer will be reported until October.
“It’s awfully tough,” Loertscher said, “especially when you’re in the middle of a campaign, to try to sort all that stuff out and to file every 30 days. It’s just a huge burden.”
Loertscher lost his re-election bid in this year’s GOP primary and won’t be returning to the Legislature in January. He’s currently the chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, the panel that handles election legislation during the Legislature’s annual sessions.
The lawmakers also set aside a portion of their meeting Monday for public comment, but only one person, Fred Birnbaum of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, spoke. His pitch — that new, stricter disclosure rules for electioneering communications should respect “donor privacy” — won him little sympathy with the committee.
“That’s exactly what transparency is about,” Wood, interim committee co-chair, said after the meeting. “We want to know where the money is from.”
The Idaho Freedom Foundation is a nonprofit that has been increasingly active in electioneering communications through its political arm, Idaho Freedom Action, including sending out targeted mailers in contested legislative primary races around the state this year.
Birnbaum told the lawmakers some of the changes they’re considering could force his group to identify its donors who contribute more than $50.
“I think this does bring up legitimate donor privacy issues,” he said.
Wood said, “We’re not trying to regulate what anybody’s saying. All we’re trying to do is have more disclosure rather than less disclosure.”