S.C. Statehouse Report
Feb. 29, 2004
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/04.0229.elect.htm


COMMENTARY
It's time to stop waiting for online campaign disclosure
By Andy Brack
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 the money."

But 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 each year.

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 Carolina politics:

  • 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.
   

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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 site (http://www.SCVotersForCleanElections.com) 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 for office."

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 estimated.

"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.


McLEMORE'S WORLD
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