Feb. 29, 2004
It's time to
stop waiting for online campaign disclosure
SC Statehouse Report
FEB. 29, 2004 -- Just about any time you want
to sniff out what's really going on in politics, all you have
to do, as learned from the Watergate scandal, is to "follow
in South Carolina, it's still kind of difficult. Last year,
lawmakers passed sweeping campaign finance reform legislation
that mandated the State Ethics Commission to develop an Internet-based
contribution disclosure system. It would allow people to go
online to figure out how much money people were giving to
candidates. But there are two glitches:
1. The system isn't required to be in place until after
this year's elections, which doesn't help voters get a good
understanding of the millions of dollars given to politicians
2. Even if the Ethics Commission had the OK to build the
system now, it doesn't have the money to put it in place.
Fortunately, a non-partisan, non-profit group called the
Institute on Money in State Politics provides a pretty good
tool to help people figure out how money and politics intertwine.
By going online to FollowTheMoney.org (http://www.FollowTheMoney.org),
users can learn some pretty interesting facts about South
- In 2002, 245 candidates for the 124 slots in the SC House
raised $5.6 million. The average winner raised $32,717,
while the average loser raised $14,723. Incumbents generally
raised about 2.5 times more money than challengers.
- Of the 2002 House candidates, little-known Rep. Michael
Thompson, R-Anderson, raised $181,460 to win his seat -
- a job that pays only $10,400 per year. Interestingly,
Thompson contributed a whopping $145,000 of his own money
to the race. Two years earlier, Thompson contributed $140,500
to his campaign to win the seat for the first time. At the
other end of the spectrum, Rep. Mary Beth Freeman, D-Cheraw,
raised only $1,900 to win her seat in 2002.
- In 2000, 93 Senate candidates for 46 seats raised more
than $6.6 million. The average amount raised per candidate
was $73,071. Democratic Sen. John Land of Manning raised
the most - - $585,648 - - but Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence,
gave the most of his own money - - an astounding $297,000
- - of the $531,648 he raised in the election. State Sen.
Darrell Jackson, D-Hopkins, raised only $9,500 to win his
race, according to the Web site.
While state law requires candidates to disclose campaign
information, people who want to view it have to go to Columbia
to see it in person.
Ed Bender, director of the Montana-based Institute, said
states seem to believe online reporting will cost millions,
but it doesn't have to. The Institute, for example, gets people
in every state to make copies of campaign finance material
and ship it to Montana, where it is inputted into a big database.
South Carolina's data, first sent in the late 1990s, was delivered
through a $10,000 grant, said activist Brett Bursey of the
SC Progressive Network.
"It's the best tool available from which valid generalizations
can be drawn," said Bursey, whose team also runs a Web
that links to the Institute's project.
Cathy Hazelwood, assistant director of the Ethics Commission,
said the great value of the Institute's site "is just
to see how much money is involved in politics and running
Bender said the Institute, which is funded by an array of
foundations, provides the site to help increase debate around
issues and substance.
He guessed South Carolina could implement an online disclosure
system for about $200,000 by using a state-paid programmer
and off-the-shelf software. If the programmer were already
on staff in another agency, the cost would be even less. Maintenance
to keep the system going would be about $100,000 a year, he
"They [state lawmakers] could make this happen if they
were willing to take off the shackles and provide some money
and time," Bender said.
Having information on donors provides a better context to
voters who are trying to decide between candidates. With filing
for House and Senate races coming in March and the budget
currently being discussed, the time is ripe for state lawmakers
to take the plunge and fund an online disclosure system sooner
rather than later.
This week's cartoon by our Bill McLemore:
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