June 28, 2005

Rhode Island Politics & Taxation, Part XXII: Will Financial Disclosure Requirements Be Dropped?

H. Philip West, Jr., Executive Director of Common Cause in Rhode Island, has written an important editorial:

If you think that citizens have a right to know about campaign contributions and lobbyist payments to public officials, here's some scary news from the Rhode Island House of Representatives. In the final hours of the 2005 legislative session, two dangerous bills are being rushed toward passage. Each would sabotage the public's ability to follow the money that sometimes drives government decision making.

On June 7, the House Finance Committee, with Democrats and Republicans unanimously voting together, approved legislation that would gut new lobbyist-disclosure requirements enacted only last year, in the wake of the scandals that brought down two state Senate leaders...

Common Cause drafted and lobbied for the legislation that now forces such payments into the open. The 2004 Lobbyist Disclosure Law required lobbyists and those who employ them to file public reports of "all money and anything of value" worth more than $250 that they pay to "any major state decision maker" in a calendar year.

The underlying goal was simple disclosure: Those who lobby for legislation or other government decisions must report payments to major state decision makers in the legislative, executive, or judicial branches of state government. Whether or not payments are technically for lobbying, lobbyists and those who hire them must file annual public reports.

Nothing in the new law limits or bans such payments. It simply requires disclosure...

Common Cause offered simple, straightforward language to address [concerns highlighted in the full editorial], but nothing satisfied the House Finance Committee...

With negotiations stalled, this year's amended bill (05-H 5477SubA, filed by House Majority Leader Gordon Fox [D.-Providence]) may yet surface on the House floor in the final hours of the legislative session. Its passage would nullify the lobbyist-disclosure requirements, which Mr. Fox sponsored only last year.

More ominously, last Thursday the state Senate rammed through a campaign-finance amendment that would dismantle a 2001 law -- also enacted in the wake of scandal -- that requires electronic filing and disclosure of campaign-finance reports.

The goal of that 2001 law was to let journalists and ordinary citizens analyze pertinent information via computer about who contributes to political candidates' coffers. Its passage put Rhode Island in the good company of 13 other states that now mandate electronic filing for campaigns that raise or spend specified threshold amounts.

Under the Rhode Island law, any campaign that raises or spends more than $5,000 in a year must file electronically. Thousands of Rhode Island campaign contributions are thus already available for public review...

As approved by the full Senate on Thursday, the legislation (05-S 1123SubA, filed by Sen. Roger Badeau [D.-Woonsocket]) guts the requirement that candidates, political parties, and political-action committees "commence filing campaign-finance reports electronically." Instead, it says that they "may commence" filing electronically. Beyond making electronic data merely optional, it also entirely deletes a back-up filing requirement for campaigns that raise or spend more than $5,000 a year.

If enacted, this change would carry Rhode Island back to the bad old days when campaigns printed out thousands of pages of campaign documents from their computers and submitted them to the Board of Elections. Journalists and other citizens who sought to analyze those data were forced to spend hundreds of hours keypunching the numbers into their computers before they could start to connect the dots...

Both 5477SubA and 1123SubA appear to offer only minor amendments, yet each would scuttle open-government requirements born of scandal. Each bill would slam the door on public access to vital information about money that flows from deep pockets to powerful public officials.

Only forceful calls to every member of Rhode Island's General Assembly will persuade lawmakers to protect tools that allow voters to follow the money. Amid the haste and heat of these final legislative days, only vocal constituents will persuade lawmakers to kill these bad bills.

What will it take for these people in the State House to wake up and realize the citizens of Rhode Island want a government that is responsible to its citizens?

These bills deserve to be defeated. If they are not, then we will add some new names to the Hall of Shame. It should be quite a list by the time we reach the 2006 elections.

This posting continues a periodic series on Rhode Island politics and taxation, building on twenty-one previous postings:

I - Guiding Principles for Sound Public Policy
II - The Outrageous Tax Burden in Rhode Island
III - 2004: The Year in Review
IV - The NEA's Disinformation Campaign
V - Governor Carcieri's State of the State Address
VI - "Citizens for Representative Government's" Deceitful Manipulation of the Constitutional Convention Vote
VII - The Extreme Tax Burden in the City of Providence
VIII - Rhode Island Gets a C+ on its Report Card
IX - How Speaker Murphy's Changing of the Rules of the House Reduces Your Freedom
X - East Greenwich Teachers' Salary and Benefits Data
XI - What Was Rep. Fox Doing in Portsmouth?
XII - Why Do RI Citizens Passively Consent to Governmental Control by Powerful Interests?
XIII - RI House Leaders Show No Respect for Rule of Law by Undermining Separations of Powers, Part I
XIV - More Bad Faith Behavior by the NEA
XV - RI House Leaders Show No Respect for Rule of Law by Undermining Separations of Powers, Part II
XVI - Tom Coyne - RI Schools: Big Bucks Have Not Brought Good Results
XVII - RI Public Pension Problems
XVIII - Union Doublespeak, Again
XIX - Another Stab at Killing Off Future Economic Growth
XX - Defining a Core Problem in Rhode Island
XXI - Blocking More Charter Schools Means Hurting Our Children