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Campaign finance concerns linger

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By Megan Banta

Advocates for more transparent government say that, though campaign finance laws in Indiana are pretty good, some reforms are necessary.

Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause, said there are three major problems with Indiana's campaign finance laws.

The first, she said, is that there are no limits on how much individuals and political action committees can donate to candidates, which "stands in sharp contrast to the federal government."The federal government has had campaign caps in place since the 1970s.

One way to address this problem would be to encourage small donations from individuals by instituting "a tax credit or tax deduction for political contributors that would be capped at a certain size, [like] less than a hundred dollars," Vaughn said.

Another major problem, she added, is that the system is "almost totally reliant on private donations from special interest [groups]."

Vaughn supports a campaign financing system like those in Maine or in Arizona, which allows "candidates who choose to forgo the system of legalized bribery that we have in place now" to fund their campaigns with public money, which "comes with no strings attached."

Vaughn said even though this system would limit funds and make candidates be more efficient with their campaign dollars, it would be better than the current system because it would mean that those elected "are unencumbered by the expectations of special interests who wrote them checks."

She said it is not money in campaigns that is the issue, but rather who contributes, how much they give, and what they expect in return.

"Indiana needs to figure out a away to get some public money into campaigns instead of solely relying on private contributors who tend to be the very same people who are going to come to the legislature wanting them to do something," she said.

"Utility companies, insurance companies, banks, the Farm Bureau. Those are the very same people who are going to come hat in hand to the General Assembly and say, 'We want you to do this for us.'"

She said that situation is why "severing that connection between campaign finance and the special interests" is necessary.

Vaughn said the final problem with Indiana's campaign finance system is that it can be "pretty shadowy" at times.

She cited a law passed several years ago that requires candidates to disclose large contributions made in the final two weeks of a campaign within 48 hours and have to give the name and occupation of the contributor, but do not have to disclose their employer.

"Just doing the occupation is not entirely helpful," Vaughn said. "We have a lot of these disclosure statements filed that it's John Smith, businessman. If it was John Smith, businessman, and here's his company, that's going to be a far more complete disclosure."

Vaughn said voters need disclosures that are not only complete, but also timely. She said electronic filing is the best way to ensure this because it is "quicker, easier, and more cost-effective" and because it "really reduces the chance that you're going to make mistakes in data entry."

"Mandatory electronic filing is an important thing," she said.

Michelle Thompson, campaign finance coordinator for the Indiana Election Division, said that electronic filing is mandatory for statewide candidates, but not for other candidates in Indiana.

Thompson said that is because of how the law reads.

"That's just the way the Legislature wrote it," Thompson said.

Gerry Lanosga, a professor of journalism at Ball State University who is on the board of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government, echoed Vaughn's comments.

"What we really need is more electronic disclosure so that, even in the week before the election or the eve of the election, [people] can see where the infusions of cash are coming from," he said.

Lanosga said that, though legislators made the right move when they required candidates to report large contributions made in the last two weeks of a campaign within 48 hours, they also should require agencies to post the information.

He said this would make it easier for citizens to access the records because it would mean they could see the reports without being limited by the business hours of the county clerk, city clerk, or secretary of state's office.

"Not everybody covers politics on a 24/7 basis," he said. "Journalists are always there, so they can go down easily and get these reports as they're filed, but if a citizen wants to do that, the access isn't there."

Another thing that can limit citizen access to these records is the fact that even though the state has a good campaign finance interface, most Indiana cities do not have one that compares, Lanosga said.

"If you're interested in someone who's running for the state Senate, you can easily find campaign finance records," he said. "But if you're interested in somebody who's running for mayor, it's much more difficult to get access to those unless you go down to the city clerk's office or the county clerk's office, and sometimes that's not always practical."

Lanosga said since several citizens work during business hours, they often cannot make it in to be able to view the physical records.

He said for this reason, Indiana needs "an enhancement to the disclosure law that makes localities, particularly counties, require electronic submission of campaign finance records, and electronic disclosure that citizens can have access to 24 hours [a day]."

Lanosga said this is necessary because local government is where citizens are affected most directly through things like property taxes and local services.

"All of those things are funded out of local coffers, and so people who running for local offices can be the ones who affect that money, and affect people in that way," he said. "So it's natural that people ought to have really good access to information about people who are running for those offices, and they just don't have it as easy as it ought to be in this day and age."

The above is one of an ongoing series of reports from the Indiana Statehouse by students at the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism.

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