Monday, April 14, 2008

Shining a touch of light on politics

Last week may have been a significant milestone in the history of the Palmetto State. On April 10th, a little-known provision of law took effect which could have major long-term implications to ensure good government.

For the first time, all candidates for state office are required to file financial disclosures for their campaigns online, and, for the first time, the public has real access to information about who contributes how much to politicians in our state.

That’s potentially useful information for the public to have. It allows anyone to “follow the money” to determine whether candidates and/or elected officials are being unduly influenced by campaign contributors.

Let me state clearly my belief that political campaign contributions are positives, not negatives. For most Americans, making a financial donation to a campaign or cause they support is the quickest, easiest way to be involved in the political process. Since few people have enough spare time anymore to go door-knocking through their neighborhood in support of their favorite candidates, writing a check is a good way to try to make a difference.

There are instances, however, when the positive act of making a contribution is abused, and becomes a negative. When an individual or group, or even an entire industry, sets out to “bankroll” a candidate in order to circumvent the will of the people, then it’s a problem.

Here’s a hypothetical for instance: Let’s say Candidate Smith has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the insurance industry. Once he’s in office, there’s a new law proposed to help keep insurance rates affordable. Candidate Smith – who is now elected official Smith – works to kill the new law. We might become a little suspicious -- wondering if Smith is standing up for his constituents, or for those giant insurance companies that funneled $47,000 into his campaign fund.

You probably will NOT be surprised to learn that situations such as this occur all the time. Trouble is, you can’t really put your finger on which candidates and which contributors… because you don’t happen to have that information available.

Actually, the information has been available since the mid-1970’s when our state enacted its first Campaign Disclosure laws. Unfortunately, it wasn’t available on the Internet, so the only people who were aware of these contribution patterns were the people who could take time away form work (Monday-Friday 8:30 til 5:00 pm) to drive down to the State Ethics office and pay 25-cents per page for copies of campaign disclosure reports. That meant the only people who ever looked at the reports were the news media and campaigns who were trying to dig up dirt on their opponents, or perhaps just trying to find out what their opponents were up to. (Being in the business of politics, I actually paid 25-cents per page for these reports on many, many occasions.)

But, back in 2002, under the leadership of former House Speaker David Wilkins, the state legislature passed a major reform requiring all state officials to file their campaign disclosures online.… and, starting last week, on April 10th, that information is now available to the whole world via the new-fangled Electronic Internet. It’s a very good thing.

Now, every member of the public can find out a little more about the candidates vying for their support, and have the information needed to make better voting decisions. And… the public will NOT be dependent on the news media or opposing campaigns to interpret the information.

I encourage you to visit the website -- -- and do a little checking up for yourself.

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