Want transparency? Participation required

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By The Staff

With its Jan. 21, 2010, ruling on Citizens United vs. Federal Electronics Commission, the United States Supreme Court overturned a longstanding ban on the use of corporate profits to fund political advocacy – a ban spawned decades earlier by bald, wholesale corruption in politics in this country.

The Court also unequivocally endorsed the value of transparency in elections as the first step to leveling the political playing field for individuals who want to counter corporate spending in elections.

They wrote: “The First Amendment protects political speech; disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

While disclosure of political donations and interactions in this country is far from perfect, it is better than in most other countries.

For more than a decade, the National Institute on Money in State Politics has been revealing the major players in state elections. In our routine investigating of state-level donor activities in all 50 states, we found some astounding facts:

In the 2007-2008 elections for state legislature, governor and other statewide offices, just 14 percent of the donors gave 80 percent of the money raised by all state-level candidates, amounting to $1.3 billion.

Many of these donors were political parties, their leadership caucus committees, and candidates themselves, who often give thousands to their own campaigns.

After filtering out these “insider” donors, we found that in all 2007 and 2008 campaigns, 29 percent of the individuals who gave accounted for 80 percent of the money from all individuals, or $468,774,539. Those same years, just 16 percent of “non-individuals,” such as industry and labor PACs, businesses themselves and their associations, gave more than half a billion dollars, which accounts for 80 percent of all the donations from these interests.

These donor and funding levels hold true for past election cycles, as well.

What does that mean? In short, a small percentage of individual and special-interest donors in this nation provide campaigns with the majority of the funds to make candidates’ stances on issues known. All this raises a basic question: “Who will elected lawmakers listen to most closely?”

Edward Bender is executive Director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The Institute’s Web site, http://www.followthemoney.org/Institute/ tracks campaign contributions in state elections.

Editor’s Note: March 14-20 is Sunshine Week this year. Launched in 2005 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Sunshine Week is held annually to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.