Secrecy weakens open government

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Sunshine Week reminds us that donor reforms, more openness needed

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EDITORIALS

Sunshine Week is again upon us. It’s time to reflect on how open government benefits us, yet how it’s like pulling teeth to get some elected officials to recognize it.

Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know what its government is doing and why. It can involve anything from federal or state officeholders giving favorable treatment to donors, or a local governmental board discussing public business in private.

The event is planned to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, considered the father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The biggest concerns today are voter apathy and the money that influences politics from anonymous sources. Citizens United continues to be the worst decision by the Supreme Court in recent memory and its effects have been damaging. Whether given to a Democrat, Republican or independent, the well-heeled wish to do their donating in the shadows, and the court affirmed that practice.

For instance, who is supporting our candidates in federal and state races? It’s difficult to know. While more money than ever is flowing into our races, information on who is giving to candidates is getting more difficult to find.

If elected, to whom will candidates be beholden? Will they represent the interests of local voters or those of wealthy individuals or issue-oriented organizations which can spread around campaign funds while remaining in the dark?

With the technology that exists today, we can get photos of a friend’s meal before he takes the first bite. Voters, likewise, should have near instant access to campaign contributors.

Legislators have dragged their heels on reforms, letting big donors remain in the shadows, but claiming that “rampant voter fraud” needs special Voter ID laws. (Four in-person cases were prosecuted between 2000 and 2014 in Texas.)

As a Texas Tribune analysis noted, “They talk about vote security as if voting in Texas was as deeply corrupted as, say, campaign finance. The law requires you to give your name when you vote and makes it easy to catch you if you cheat, even without creating obstacles like voter photo ID laws. On the money side, they’re okay with a system where the players don’t always have to reveal their names or the amounts they give.”

This contributes to voter disenfranchisement, which we, in turn, believe contributes to apathy. Texas has unbelievably low voting turnout by percentage, and some politicians like it that way.

Any democracy requires an informed electorate. And any government in a democracy must operate in such a way to allow the free flow of information.

In Texas, our state leaders aren’t much interested in doing much about the lack of people voting.

We and others will continue to advocate for full and fast disclosure. That should be the most basic of open government principles. — K.E.C.

TYPES OF DONORS

Types of groups raising money for elections and information they are required to disclose:

Candidates: Federal, state and local candidates are required to disclose their contributors and campaign spending, but some states have looser reporting requirements and enforcement than others.

Political action committees: Known as PACs, these committees raise and spend money to elect or defeat candidates. They must follow contribution limits and must report their donors.

Super PACs: Super PACs can raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations, unions and associations, and spend unlimited amounts to advocate for or against political candidates. They are different from traditional PACs in that they can’t donate money directly to political candidates and cannot coordinate with candidates. They must report their donors, but can accept money from groups that don’t have disclosure requirements.

527s: These groups are tax-exempt organizations that raise money for political activities. Named for a section of the federal tax code, they are typically focused on influencing an issue, policy, appointment or election. They can raise unlimited amounts of money from individual donors as well as corporations and labor unions, but have to register with the IRS and disclose contributions and spending.

Tax-exempt nonprofit groups: There are several different types of groups organized under the 501(c) section of the federal tax code, none of which are required to disclose their donors. Some of them, known as 501(c)

(3) groups, are organizations that aren’t supposed to engage in any political activities. Others in this category are widely considered “dark money” groups because they can

spend money on politics.

(By the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Sacramento Bee.)