By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Remember the scene in the movie “Jerry Maguire” where the football player portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. makes the sports agent played by Tom Cruise shout, “Show me the money!”?
The part of Gooding was played this legislative session by Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers. The part of Tom Cruise was played by a Legislature that, unfortunately, decided to keep silent.
In Arkansas, candidates can file their reports online or on paper. The reports can be viewed one at a time in paper form at the secretary of state’s website, votenaturally.org. Because it’s not searchable, tracking the money requires painstaking research – more than most journalists will take time to do, and certainly more than most citizens have time to do.
Della Rosa, a freshman legislator, tried without success to pass a bill that would have required legislative and statewide candidates to file campaign finance reports online into a searchable database. That would have enabled any citizen with an internet connection to quickly view who contributed to an elected official’s campaign, and how much. It also would have allowed citizens to determine how much various interest groups had donated across the board, and to whom. Candidates must file their reports online in 40 states, Della Rosa argued.
Campaign finance transparency is important not because elected officials supposedly are crooks, because most aren’t. It’s important because all legislators are human beings, and human beings react in predictable ways when given certain incentives. One way is this: Generally, human beings take care of those who take care of them. If you want an idea of what legislators would like to do in office, check out their campaign websites. If you want to know how they actually will vote, check out their campaign finance reports.
Needing 67 votes, House Bill 1233 failed in the House, 48-33, with 19 not voting. Legislative opponents offered unconvincing arguments about slow internet connections, the complexities of filing online, or the possibility of being cited for an ethics violation because of an internet issue. One said he was too “dimwitted” to learn, so Della Rosa offered to help him.
Let’s be charitable and say that opponents were mostly afraid of change and were not thinking creatively. They could just mail their forms to someone with a good internet connection and pay them to input them online, just like they pay the companies that print their yard signs. Della Rosa even amended the bill to allow candidates to opt out by submitting an affidavit stating that they lacked the ability to file online and that doing so was a substantial hardship. The secretary of state’s website would explain that they had opted out. That wasn’t enough.
“I didn’t realize this when I started this, but I think one of the hardest things to do in this building is to convince people to change their own behavior,” Della Rosa told the House on March 26, just before the vote failed. “We make laws – what, we’re at a rate of about 50 a day I think right now towards the end – where we’re telling other people, ‘You should do this. You should do that. This is better for everyone. You should do that.’ One of the hardest things to do is to change your own behavior.”
Sometimes, it takes a while for a good idea to become law – even one based on common sense. This legislative session, lawmakers finally voted to make it possible for a good school district with sound finances to remain open if it falls below 350 students, 12 years after voting to close all school districts that size, no matter their performance.
Maybe Della Rosa can pass her bill in a future session. Or maybe citizens could speed up the timetable by gathering signatures for an initiated act requiring legislative and statewide candidates to file online – without the provision letting candidates opt out. Maybe Regnat Populus, the ethics-promoting citizens group, could take up the cause.
At some point, average citizens must realize that most of the issues that we argue about are like leaves on a tree – blown left and right, falling for a time, and then reappearing in a later season. Campaign finance is a root – probably the biggest root. On every issue, follow the money. Always follow the money.
For Arkansas citizens, that’s still hard to do, but at least Della Rosa is trying to show it to us.