Local campaign finance regulations in Oklahoma have become virtually impossible to enforce, say backers of a measure that would scrap these laws in favor of a new system.
A bill pending in the Legislature would make often-confusing local rules more closely track with laws for state races, said Sen. A.J. Griffin, R-Guthrie, one of the bill’s authors.
“It improves the transparency of the process and it minimizes any corruption, and that’s the goal here,” Griffin said.
Laws governing things such as how much a political donor can contribute to a local campaign, how those contributions are reported and where the public can access those reports are contained in what is known as the Political Subdivisions Ethics Act.
“This act was written in 1995 and has been amended very little since then,” said Lee Slater, executive director of the state Ethics Commission. “It would generously be described as flawed in that much of it is unclear and it is certainly out of date. This would allow for uniform interpretation and enforcement of campaign laws at all levels of government in Oklahoma.”
The existing act doesn’t discuss independent political expenditures, which have skyrocketed in this country as groups engage in political advertising without contributing directly to a campaign. The proposed law would handle such contributions as they are handled in state races, where these groups must identify donors who contribute more than $50.
It would also require that:
•Financial disclosure statements for local candidates match a more detailed statement required for candidates for state office.
•Campaign spending reports for local races, such as city council and county commission, be available to be viewed within the county where the race is taking place. As it stands now, many of these reports are only available at the state Capitol.
•Political donors who contribute $50 or more would have to be identified in campaign reports. Currently, those who donate less than $200 need not be identified.
The bill would also set the Ethics Commission as the body to enforce local campaign finance laws. Currently, the commission, district attorneys and the attorney general’s office have a shared responsibility for this enforcement, but Slater said the existing law is so flawed “that any prosecution civilly or criminally would be very difficult.”
Senate Bill 1745 specifies that the Ethics Commission’s enforcement of local campaign finance laws would be paid for with money raised from fees and fines.
Slater said he requested the legislation after controversy over independent expenditures in local elections led to public questions and concerns about the existing law.
“Those of us who work with it have known for a long time there are serious problems with it,” he said. “It is internally inconsistent and contradictory.”
Carolyn Stager, executive director of the Oklahoma Municipal League, said members of her organization were at first concerned that the bill would make it difficult to find good candidates to run for municipal office.
“Their comments also stated that the state cannot compare elections in large cities to those in smaller communities,” Stager said.
Based on those concerns, the bill was changed to apply only to cities of more than 10,000 people and with budgets of more than $10 million.
The bill has passed the Senate and the House. It will come back to the Senate, likely next week, for consideration of some House changes.