THE Oklahoma Ethics Commission is conducting a long-overdue review of its rules and regulations. Some critics have attacked the resulting proposals, claiming that they would increase the power of special interests. These claims are more hype than substance.
Among the rule changes commission members will consider on Dec. 13 is one changing the current “per family per campaign” and “per family per year” contribution limits to political parties and political action committees (PACs). The proposed rules would instead apply contribution limits on a “per person” basis.
Under current regulations, an unmarried couple could give more money to a political cause than a comparable married couple. This obviously raises constitutional concerns. Conservatives rightfully oppose a “marriage penalty” in the tax code. They should oppose a marriage penalty for those engaged in First Amendment activities as well.
A proposed Ethics Commission rule would allow a maximum contribution of $2,600 per person, per election, to candidates. The limit would automatically increase with inflation, mirroring federal law. This is not unreasonable. Failure to adjust contribution limits for inflation ultimately benefits entrenched incumbents at the expense of challengers, which serves no public purpose.
Keep in mind, the current $5,000 per-family per-campaign limit dates to at least 1974 when that sum was equal to more than $25,000 today. Although a married couple could give up to $15,600 to a candidate under the proposed rules (assuming both husband and wife each give $2,600 apiece for the primary, runoff and general elections), that sum still falls short of the $25,000 limit originally enacted in Oklahoma in the 1970s.
Furthermore, only a handful of races typically meet the criteria for couples to donate the $15,600 maximum. Lee Slater, Ethics Commission executive director, notes that only four candidates in 2012 would have qualified for the maximum contribution as a result of competing in a primary, a runoff primary and a general election.
Proposed rule changes also would significantly increase the amount that may be contributed to political parties and traditional political action committees, as well as raising the amounts that political parties and PACs may contribute to candidates. Those changes largely account for inflation, but also would make it easier for candidates to raise money to fund a response to independent expenditure campaigns. Under the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case, there are no limits on independent expenditures.
We have long preferred transparency to prohibition when it comes to political contributions. As long as voters know who funds a candidate, they have the ability to decide if that influence is improper.
Unreasonable restrictions on candidates' fundraising don't reduce the influence of special-interest money in politics; they merely shift funds to less-transparent organizations. The Ethics Commission's proposed rules could encourage money to be given directly to candidates' campaigns, which must report the source of donations, rather than to independent groups that are not obligated to be as transparent.
The question isn't whether people will spend money on political races. They will. Instead, the question is whether voters will know who is financially backing campaign expenditures. The Ethics Commission's proposed rules seem likely to encourage more transparent political donations in Oklahoma elections. If that goal is attained, it will be an outcome all Oklahomans should cheer.