Turns out there’s a little controversy brewing down at the state Ethics Commission, Oklahoma’s agency that tracks campaign finance and election spending.
For years, the commission and its backers have complained it doesn’t have the budget or manpower to track the ever-increasing sophistication and professionalization of state political campaigns.
So, you’d think a budget increase for the upcoming year would be welcome news, right?
Not so fast.
Turns out the agency’s $150,000 budget increase this year comes with a stipulation: the commission must spend $50,000 of that amount to begin development of a new Web-based campaign filing system modeled after the one at the Federal Election Commission.
The problem is, nobody asked the commission if they wanted or needed that software. The vice-chairman of the commission, John Raley, has an op-ed in today’s Oklahoman. He says:
The $150,000 increase this year includes a $50,000 earmark for filing software that we did not request, do not want and that would destroy the ability to track aggregate totals — a key element in Oklahoma’s campaign disclosure law. In short, one-third of our funding would waste taxpayer money and distort data.
The paper also had a news brief on the funding bill, H.B. 2286. It passed the House 96-2.
As Executive Director Marilyn Hughes explains it, tracking aggregate campaign contributions is done differently in Oklahoma than at the federal level.
The FEC tracks contributions by election, so you can contribute maximum amounts (now $2,300 for individuals) for primary, runoff and general election campaigns at the federal level.
But Oklahoma law allows for maximum contributions ($5,000 per year for individuals) for the entire campaign, including the primary, runoff and general elections.
Paul Ziriax, spokesman for Senate Co-President Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said the filing software currently used by the Ethics Commission is “seriously flawed”:
Over the years, our office has received numerous complaints that the Ethics Commission’s current electronic campaign reporting software is seriously flawed and does not properly function. We believe it can be replaced with reporting software that is more reliable and more user-friendly, such as the FEC’s software adapted for Oklahoma’s laws and rules.
If the Ethics Commission was forced to use the FEC software as is, “it would make our enforcement tool pretty useless,” Hughes said.
So the $50,000 approved by the Legislature would go to the state’s software vendor, OK.gov (a unit of Kansas-based NIC Inc.) to modify the FEC software for Oklahoma. NIC/OK.gov currently retains seven lobbyists at the Capitol.
Problem is, nobody knows just exactly how much the modification might cost.
Ziriax said Senate Republicans “sought $150,000 in funding to begin the process of obtaining FEC-style campaign reporting software.” That figure was whittled down to $50,000 in the bill approved Thursday by the House.
Hughes said Friday that OK.gov officials e-mailed her an estimate of between $750,000 and $1 million to modify FEC campaign filing software for Oklahoma. Later e-mails backtracked, saying it would be “significantly more than $150,000.”
Zirax said: “The cost estimates for the FEC software that are being e-mailed around the Capitol today seem high. But the Senate staff is working to develop an estimate of the total cost of acquiring the FEC campaign reporting software and adapting it for Oklahoma’s laws and rules.”
(Full disclosure: I use the Ethics Commission campaign finance data on the back end to track election spending. I have no hands-on experience with the front-end of the system that candidates and political action committees are required to use.)
Written by Paul Monies