AS the new head of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, Lee Slater is attempting to bring clarity and transparency to Oklahoma's campaign finance reporting system. A major part of this effort requires replacing the ineffective software program individuals must use to file reports. Put simply, data made available through the program is inaccurate.
That alone is reason to support this change. Oklahomans deserve to know of any financial benefit a lawmaker receives while in office, whether a direct campaign contribution or free meal. If the information isn't easily available, or if it's incomplete, the public isn't well-served. The cause of good government takes a hit.
Due to problems with the current Ethics Commission software, information reported by some candidates and lobbyists simply does not show up. As a result, the program provides inaccurate totals of lobbyist gifts to lawmakers — which makes the program a detriment to open government, not an asset. Slater bluntly calls the system “the worst I've ever seen.”
The system's glitches can allow people to be impugned for violating ethics rules when they have complied. Contributions can be hidden from public view. Neither outcome is desirable.
Steve Kern, a Republican candidate for state Senate District 40, filed his organizational papers on May 13; the filing didn't appear online until recently — when Kern attempted to file a campaign report and the problem was discovered. Since those seeking state or legislative office must file organizational committee forms before raising or spending $500 or more, Kern could have been accused of violating ethics regulations in spite of complying with them.
A search of lobbyist gifts during the last six months of 2012 showed no results for Oklahoma State University, yet the university provided $100 discounts on football season tickets to 33 lawmakers. Even though OSU officials reported the donations, those contributions don't show up in individual searches of lawmakers' contributions.
Another common glitch prevents candidates from even filing quarterly campaign fundraising and expenditure reports. In many cases, candidates can pull up forms but can't input information. As a last resort, commission staffers have been allowed to make changes — if a candidate sends an email authorizing the action. From Feb. 1 though late July, 45 candidates had to take that step.
Problems with the Ethics Commission's software have been well-known for years, but Slater is the first agency director to take the issue seriously. Lawmakers should support his request and appropriate the funds necessary to replace the software.
At the same time, the Ethics Commission is conducting a top-to-bottom review of campaign finance regulations, which Slater notes have become a “real hodgepodge.” The process will include public meetings to receive input from numerous interested parties. The end goal is a set of rules emphasizing disclosure above all.
Among the changes potentially under consideration are increased reporting of campaign expenditures during legislative sessions, changes to contribution limits and disclosure when agency regulators are lobbied. Slater says Ethics Commission staff also will begin auditing campaign finance reports. Also, the agency will provide education and training services so candidates honestly seeking to abide by the rules can do so.
Slater's goals of greater simplicity and transparency in campaign finance reporting are both simple and ambitious. Those goals deserve Oklahomans' full support. Ethics Commission data should accurately inform voter decisions. The current system often generates candidate headaches with limited public benefit.