POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 19, 2012:
Right or Wrong?
Both parties underfunding the ethics commission
Even the most apathetic American knows that Democrats and Republicans agree on little.
The parties are so polarized, in fact, that it's not uncommon in even the most polite company for someone to ask (innocently), "Has this country ever been more divided?"
Well, yes. How about the Civil War? Can't get much more divided than that.
What's often less remembered are the times when the two parties actually embrace a common agenda. It happens, but bipartisan cooperation simply isn't as memorable as take-no-prisoners, cage-brawling power politics.
It also isn't necessarily a good thing.
This is counter-intuitive, to be sure. Americans get all misty-eyed over the notion of a Jimmy Stewart-like statesman persuading the political class to set aside egos and personal differences in order to pursue the greater good. We stand taller when our political leaders close ranks in the aftermath of a Pearl Harbor or a 9/11.
Yet, our collective memories often aren't as sharp when the elected leaders of our two major parties are in cahoots to preserve their political power, the rights and desires of the taxpayers be damned.
Consider the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, a case in point.
The agency -- a noble idea promoted by a noble governor, Republican Henry Bellmon -- was chiseled into the Oklahoma Constitution in a September 1990 statewide referendum.
What the voters expected was this: a watchdog over campaign finance and special interest lobbying.
What they got instead was: an underfunded agency that never has had the bite necessary to protect the public's interests from the corrupting influence of money in politics.
The agency originally requested 10 employees. It got seven. Now it's down to five. To handle the reporting required of hundreds of campaigns and lobbyists.
What happened? The fox ended up guarding the henhouse. The crafters of the constitutional amendment erred by leaving the legislature in charge of the agency's funding.
You think legislative leaders had any incentive to underfund -- to neuter -- the watchdog?
As former Commissioner John Raley put it recently, "The commission through the last two decades has been less than a stepchild for the Legislature.
"There are still some in places of influence that would be happy if the commission was nothing more than a little reporting and record-keeping agency without any practical means of investigating or authority to impose sanctions."
When Democrats controlled the Legislature, they starved the agency. Now that Republicans are dominant, they've shown even less interest in funding it fully.
Thankfully, there are those outside the elected class that understand the importance of a truly independent watchdog, keeping an eye on the confluence of money and politics.
Common Cause Oklahoma -- devoted to "holding power accountable" -- is developing a plan that would create a permanent funding mechanism for the beleaguered ethics commission.
According to state chair Lynn Howell, the agency could be funded by a fee paid by candidates for public office -- perhaps, say, five percent of the amount of campaign contributions they report raising during each period.
"We're not sure what the number is yet," said Howell, an Oklahoma City attorney. But "it would be the commission's sole source of income."
Over the last five years, Howell said, candidates in Oklahoma reported raising an average $13 million annually. A five percent fee, paid by the candidates, could generate $650,000 or so annually to finance the commission's work -- about the same as its 2012-13 budget.
It would mean no more legislative funding -- no more opportunities for lawmakers to muzzle the watchdog.
What it will take, Howell said, is a constitutional amendment that could be accomplished one of two ways: winning legislative approval of a resolution that would put the issue to a statewide vote. Or successfully circulating an initiative petition that would force a statewide vote.
It then would be up to the voters to give final approval.
Of course, candidates, officeholders and special interests aren't likely to be keen about the idea. They like the ethics commission in a semi-neutered state. It gives the patina of a good government watchdog, but without the bite.
Howell said Common Cause currently is crafting a proposed legislative petition and soon will begin seeking legislative sponsors, hoping to get it on the 2013 legislature's radar.
For lawmakers, one compelling argument in favor of Common Cause's plan is that it would free up more than $650,000 for other vital state services during a prolonged period of lean budgets.
But some legislators no doubt would love to see this idea die a quiet death. They don't want to be put in the position of opposing a resolution that would give the voters the right to settle this funding issue. But if the Ethics Commission is independently funded, the Legislature loses a hammer it can wield to keep the agency from being too independent.
Raley, a former U.S. attorney who served two five-year terms on the commission, suggests independent funding is crucial to the agency's long-term credibility and viability.
"The solution to this impasse, if the commission is to survive, must be the promotion and adoption of a constitutional amendment providing for independent funding at a rate commensurate with the responsibilities and duties otherwise constitutionally imposed," he said.
In other words, a five percent fee, based on campaign donations, probably isn't going to be enough to give the commission the financial resources it needs to do the job right.
Ten percent -- a $1.3 million annual budget -- is more like it. And legislators who are seriously committed to good, clean government should be standing in line to sponsor the Common Cause proposal.
If we hear nothing but crickets, we'll know with certainty whose best interests are being served at the state Capitol.
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