Times are tough for Idaho’s working people. Our wealth and wages are among the lowest in the nation. Our schools do not have the resources they need to help our children succeed. And tens of thousands of our friends and neighbors do not have access to basic health care. While my colleagues and I fight every day to change that state of affairs — to bring opportunity to all Idahoans — the threat of dark money from corrupting special interests casts a shadow over the progress we want for Idaho. It’s time we shine some light into those shadows.

Democratic state lawmakers have been pushing campaign and ethics reform for the better part of a decade. I’ve introduced or co-sponsored several bills myself to make sure everyone qualified to do so can register to vote and has ample time to cast their ballots. I represent four rural counties in my legislative district — Gooding, Lincoln, Camas and Blaine — so I know my constituents often have to travel long distances to their polling places. Furthermore, you should have confidence that the people you are voting for are not bought and paid for by special interests and dark money. I bring those principles to the Campaign Finance Reform Legislative Work Group which continues its efforts to reform Idaho’s moribund campaign finance laws.

Given the values I try to bring to the committee, you can imagine my shock when — at our very first meeting this summer — Idaho’s Secretary of State Lawerence Denney said, “If some company wants to buy a legislator, from my point of view, that’s all right as long as I know who’s paying for that.” I was surprised to hear this coming from our state’s top election official — a man charged with making sure your elections are fair and above board. I was equally dismayed when it was suggested at our last meeting to eliminate the limits on campaign contributions to candidates. My colleague, Rep. Mat Erpelding, posed the obvious question to the committee: “If there are no limits, then what is there to investigate?” The suggestion to eliminate contribution limits was quickly voted down.

Despite these fits and starts, I believe the committee is making real headway in reforming our state campaign finance laws. Consensus is building around the idea of transparency by shining light on who donates to political campaigns — the opposite of “dark” money. Members of the bipartisan committee are pushing for online reporting standards that will make it easier for candidates to disclose contributions and expenditures and — more importantly — easier for you to see where candidates’ money is coming from and how they’re spending it. I am also pushing for tougher penalties for those caught violating campaign finance laws. Right now, the fine is as low as $250. With penalties that skimpy, breaking Idaho’s campaign finance laws is almost part of the cost of doing business. Not only do we need to modernize our campaign finance laws, we must ensure those who violate them are held accountable in a meaningful way.

At the same time, I know the challenges that rural candidates have that our urban counterparts do not. Whether they are running for state or local office, rural candidates spend a lot of time in their vehicles traveling from town to town and even house to house. In the city you can travel a couple of miles and meet with dozens of voters. In our legislative district it can be just the opposite — you can travel dozens of miles just to meet a couple of voters. While I will continue to fight for more transparency when it comes to campaign contributions and expenditures, I think it is important the committee consider the plight of rural districts when it comes to implementing and enforcing any new campaign finance laws. Idaho has the slowest internet speeds in the country. Many of the small towns and counties in my district are not equipped to handle fundamental changes to our reporting rules as quickly as urban districts. All candidates and the people who enforce our campaign laws should be held to the same standard. However, I will continue to urge the committee to take into account the challenges rural districts face when building the infrastructure for any new campaign finance system. We can bring reform while being fair at the same time.

The committee meets later this month — perhaps for our last time before the 2018 legislative session. We hope to have recommendations and even draft legislation before the year is out. While my colleagues and I in the state Senate will be pushing bills to bring more prosperity to all Idahoans, I also will support legislation that brings more transparency to our campaign process. Money should not — and cannot — be allowed to influence good policy. As elected lawmakers, our guide should be working for a better — and brighter — Idaho for everyone.

Michelle Stennett, a Democrat and Senate minority leader, represents District 26 in the Idaho Senate.

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