2012-08-09 / Views

our opinion

Let contributors give, but make them say why

As the election season moves to a quieter pace in Leelanau County, state and federal races are just starting to heat up.

So, too, will the rhetoric about campaign financing. Certain to be at the top of the conversation will be the U.S. Supreme Court’s monumental Citizens United decision handed down in 2010, which will be blamed for at least a portion of the $6.5 billion that is expected to be spent on television and cable ads in state and federal elections this fall. The ruling will be singled out despite the fact that campaign spending has been rising rapidly for many, many years.

While the pushback against Citizens United has been channeled largely toward passage of a Constitutional Amendment to strip “rights” from corporations, we believe such an effort misses an important point.

People and the corporations they own have always found ways to fund political campaigns, some times because they believe in the causes themselves and some times because they plan to seek future favors.

It’s an imperfect system. Still, no law or Supreme Court ruling should prevent involvement in the political process.

Say this newspaper writes a disparaging story about a millage or candidate. Shouldn’t the backers of the millage or the candidate be provided an opportunity to present another side in exacting terms? If so, the most reliable path would be to purchase an advertisement — which requires money, which requires campaign contributions.

To us, the bigger point is knowing the relationship between an entity funding a campaign and the candidate or issue promoted. Armed with that knowledge, electors are in a much better position to filter through paid political messages.

We’ll use an example from the campaign of Chelly Roush, Leelanau County treasurer. She ran an energetic campaign to keep her position, seeking to hold off challenger John A. Gallagher for the Republican nomination. Both candidates raised more than $3,000.

Two of Ms. Roush’s larger campaign donors are Martin Spaulding of Kalamazoo and Thomas Willard of Marshall. Each provided $250, which collectively represent nearly one-fifth of the money raised by Ms. Roush leading up to the last reporting period. Mr. Spaulding is listed as general manager and Mr. Willard as operations manager of Title Check, a downstate firm that is hired through a no-bid contract by the Treasurer’s office as an independent contractor to handle the sale of tax-foreclosed properties.

As the occupations and employers of campaign contributors must be listed in reporting documents, their interests in the campaign are known. The conflict is obvious, and makes us squirm. The higher road for an official would be to decline contributions from businesses he or she plans to hire with public money. Still, the donations constitute no breaking of campaign finance laws; they happen all the time, and more so on up the political food chain.

Other conflicts are more difficult to detect. For instance, the owner of a corporation may not be an employee, and therefore would be able to make personal contributions without divulging a business relationship. In such a case, wouldn’t it be better to have the corporation itself write out a check? At least the conflict would be visible.

Corporations also fund “Political Action Committees” with lovable names but singular and self-serving motives. PACs place a protective layer of insulation between their contributors and chosen political outcomes. We don’t like them.

We’d prefer that the backing corporations, unions or trades themselves be listed as payers of political advertisements. In fact, rather than attempting to reduce the amount of money that muddles its way through campaigns, we’re more interested in coming up with a system that connects the sources of funding with its benefactors. The bigger the pile of money, the brighter the light needed to expose its entanglements.

One question asked of campaign donors would go a long way in clearing the air: “Describe all personal or financial benefits that might be gained through this donation.” For large amounts of money, require a signed affidavit. And make it a criminal act to lie or hide the truth.

Then it will be up to professional — and yes, “citizen” — journalists to spread the word. We’ll do our part at the Enterprise.

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