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Elections may never be the same
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

JUNE 15, 2003 - - Elections may never be the same in South Carolina following passage of a sweeping, but mostly unheralded, campaign finance reform bill that will take effect after next year's elections.

The bill, which is expected to be signed into law soon by Gov. Mark Sanford, closes campaign finance loopholes, calls for stricter disclosures of donations, toughens lobbyist rules and provides for better reporting of contributions from people or groups that want to influence the outcome of elections.

But perhaps the biggest change is the new law will limit the amount of money political parties can give to candidates. In an election cycle, parties will be able to give no more than $50,000 in total to statewide candidates and $5,000 in total to all other candidates.

In other words, funds from a national party, state party and local party combined cannot exceed the new limits.

For candidates, particularly those in targeted races, that's a big change, says S.C. Sen. Tom Moore, D-Clearwater, who has been pushing for tougher campaign disclosure laws for years.

"Everybody will play by the same rules," he said. "It means you can't just back a Brinks truck up three days before the election and buy the election."

Moore said the new rule would make it tougher for candidates to rely on glitz, slick packaging and last-minute high-pressure tactics to woo voters. (Of course, all of those things will remain in political campaigns - - just maybe not as much).

Instead, candidates will be forced to focus more on issues and run substantive campaigns.

"It will put people more on an equal footing," Moore said.

Other major provisions of the 33-page campaign finance bill include:

  • Tougher lobbyist disclosure. Under current rules, lobbyists are prohibited from giving to candidates. But there's nothing to prohibit somebody from terminating their lobbyist registration after the legislative session, giving to a candidate and then re-registering the next day. New rules still will allow lobbyists to terminate, but they'll be prohibited from giving through the end of the calendar year.

  • Legislative PACs. The new law will put tighter control and disclosure requirements on so-called leadership political action committees. The just-passed bill will prohibit political action committees controlled by candidates from donating to other candidates.

  • Internet reporting. The new law also calls for campaign donations to be disclosed publicly on the Internet through the State Ethics Commission. Currently, anybody who wants to see who gives to a candidate has to go to Columbia to look at paper records.

  • Outside efforts. The measure will force committees that try to pass ballot measures or that make independent expenditures to influence elections to disclose contributions to their efforts. Any committee that accepts more than $500 will fall under disclosure requirements. The move will allow voters to learn who is trying to influence elections and keep big donors from hiding behind the veil of anonymity of committees.

  • Electioneering complaints. The reform package also outlines a new complaint procedure for candidates to use if they think opponents are engaged in irresponsible behavior. Currently, the Ethics Commission's hands are virtually tied in cases of election complaints before elections. The new law will let candidates who believe they've been injured sue in court and get a hearing within 10 days.

While the new law provides tougher requirements across the board, there does seem to be one area that's more relaxed - - food, lodging, transportation and drinks to state officials. Current law prohibits lawmakers from receiving anything of value over $25 per day or $200 total per year from a company that employs a lobbyist. Under the new law, the General Assembly doubled the daily and annual limits - - which means lawmakers will be able to get some more free dinners.

Oh well, some things never change. At least the new law will have more teeth than there is currently.


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