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Ben Ysursa

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa talks on the phone in September 2011 about his lawsuit filed over the failure of the state redistricting commission to draft a plan by the constitutional deadline inside the Idaho Capitol in Boise. (courtesy photo)

TWIN FALLS • It costs money to run a political campaign. There are yard signs to put out, newspaper ads to place, radio and television spots to buy.

Most successful campaigns have generous donors who give money directly to the campaign and spend on behalf of the candidate or cause.

But how is that money being monitored?

A Question of Transparency

Idaho has a $1,000 cap on contributions directly to candidates per election cycle, but no limits on independent expenditures, which include advertising and polls. Under Idaho law, those expenditures must be disclosed, and those disclosures are public documents.

But this year, one group tried to get out of disclosure.

Education Voters of Idaho, a pro-Propositions 1, 2 and 3 group, claimed it wasn’t a political committee, but a 501c(4) charity organization, and therefore wasn’t required to disclose its donors.

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa disagreed, and took the group to court. The judge agreed with Ysursa, and in late October, EVI was forced to disclose.

In an Oct. 31 letter to Ysursa, EVI’s co-executive directors John Foster and Debbie Fields asked for clarification in the disclosure law.

“(P)lease accept our previous offer to work with you in future sessions of the Idaho Legislature so there is more clarity in the law and in your office’s guidelines for definitions of political activity,” they wrote. “Other organizations should not have to suffer through such a public battle.”

Foster declined to comment for this story, but Ysursa said the two have yet to sit down to discuss specific changes Foster would like to see.

Ysursa said the 501c(4) group wasn’t unique to Idaho, and other states have had political groups claim charity status.

“That whole issue of disclosure is not just an Idaho issue,” he said. “It’s a nationwide issue.”

While he believes there are some parts of Idaho’s disclosure laws that could use some tweaking, he doesn’t believe those changes will come during the upcoming 2013 legislative session.

“I’m kind of on a wait-and-see holding pattern,” Ysursa said.

But, he added, he’d like to address the issue before the 2014 elections.

“I think the key point is everybody should know the rules and have a black and white line. Sometimes our laws are grey,” Ysursa said. “We’re in a position to have to decide what’s black and white and tell the folks.”

Hard to Track

Disclosure isn’t the only campaign finance issue Idaho politicos are watching.

In May, Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, called for reforms after multiple political action committees controlled by the same person transferred thousands of dollars back and forth among each other.

Those committees were all connected to Republican strategist Lou Esposito. Two of the PACs had the same treasurer, and three had the same Boise address. Because each PAC had multiple donors, they steered clear of legal trouble under Idaho law.

Cameron, who was targeted by some of those PACs, thinks that should change.

“In some cases, it looks like money is being laundered,” Cameron said in May. “It’s been shifted from one PAC to the next PAC to the next PAC. I think that should be illegal. ... It certainly is, in my opinion, unethical.”

Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot said he would also like to see reforms.

VanderSloot, who contributed about $2 million to save Propositions 1, 2 and 3, contends some of the advertisements from the Vote No campaign were misleading or flat-out wrong. One of his ads had mistakes, too, VanderSloot said, but he corrected them.

“I think we all ought to be accountable for accuracy,” he said, adding he wasn’t sure what form those laws would take.

Is Change Likely?

Former Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, said he hopes to see limits on independent expenditures. Corder lost his primary to fellow incumbent senator Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, after redistricting landed the two in the same district.

Corder said a ban on independent expenditures isn’t likely to happen, as many of those currently elected have benefited from that money, whether directly or through the expenditures spent on their behalf.

Ultimately, change will fall on the voters, Corder said.

“The way for the electorate to stop it is vote for the opposite person,” he said. “Whoever the independent expenditures support, vote for the other guy, or lady.”

More importantly, look past the advertising onslaught and examine the candidates and issues for yourself, Corder said.

“That’s the only way you can draw them back and teach them the election really isn’t for sale,” he said. “When you succumb to that, you say ‘Yeah, I can be bought, just not too cheap.’”

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