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Idaho lawmakers mull possible campaign disclosure changes

Idaho lawmakers are mulling several key changes to the state’s campaign disclosure laws to shine more transparency into a system that has seen more money funneled into state and local elections.

The bipartisan working group met for a second time August 28 to hear possible recommendations from the state’s top lobbyists and Secretary of State Lawerence Denney. The goal is to have the panel submit suggestions to legislative leaders before the 2018 Legislature begins in January.

“As all you well know, campaigning no longer has an offseason,” said Alex LaBeau, the leader of Idaho’s influential pro-business lobby. “There’s always a campaign fundraiser, there’s always a political action committee getting involved in the process. So do we stick with the current process or do we update our laws to reflect these new changes?”

LaBeau and Elizabeth Criner, also a lobbyist who is also the president of the Idaho Legislative Advisers, asked lawmakers to consider expanding the definition of electioneering communications to include social media and emails — currently it is just limited to broadcast and mailer ads. The two also urged lawmakers to remove the 48-hour cutoff on reporting before elections, saying that the public doesn’t know about last minute campaign expenditures until after the election.

LaBeau’s comments come at a time when top contenders for statewide elected positions are already spending and raising campaign funds ahead of the 2018 primary election. The GOP gubernatorial candidates have already boasted securing record-breaking fundraising, but detailed and regular campaign reporting won’t kick until it gets closer to election day.

Meanwhile, Denney — who has served as the state’s top election chief since 2014 — suggested local elections should also file the same campaign finance reports as statewide candidates if they raise more than $500 in campaign funds. Currently, local candidates running for school boards or county coroner are exempt from filing a sunshine report.

Denney, a Republican, presented six different legislative proposals that included the majority of the lobbyists’ LeBeau and Criner’s prior suggestions to the panel. This included a two-page bill requiring candidates to file sunshine reports twice a year during non-election years and months reports during election years.

Denney has routinely told lawmakers the secretary of state’s reporting process should be updated with better technology to help ease new candidates into the system and to better track possible violations. However, Denney recently raised eyebrows when he told the panel last month that he also didn’t mind if a company wanted to buy a lawmaker as long as the public had access to those records.

Lawmakers on August 28 agreed that the state’s sunshine laws need improving, but it’s unclear how sweeping the group will push legislative leaders to adopt. Many argued the system should be simplified, while others said more reporting could be too burdensome and detract candidates from running.

House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding said he wants to see harsher penalties for people and groups who violate campaign laws, particularly when PACs coordinate with candidate — a practice already illegal in Idaho but vagueness in the law’s language has caused challenges to pinpointing violations.

“If we’re going to be serious about improving our campaign finance laws, there have to be real consequences for those who break them,” Erpelding said.

The panel plans on meeting again in October.

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