Party resolution to relax Sunshine Law lands with a thud

By Betsy Russell

NOTE: This article first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

BOISE – Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney is less than enthusiastic about a resolution passed by the Idaho Republican Party central committee at its summer meeting in June calling for loosening campaign finance reporting requirements under Idaho’s Sunshine Law.

“If they ask my advice, I would say leave it alone,” Denney said. “I’d like to see more transparency. I’d like to know where all the money comes from.”

The state GOP passed three of its seven proposed resolutions at its meeting in Idaho Falls; besides the Sunshine Law one, the other two that passed were one calling for use of the Bible in public schools in Idaho, and another calling for an investigation of the U.S. Forest Service for not giving more deference to local county commissioners in revising a Panhandle forest management plan. Rejected resolutions included one to reopen the closed GOP primary election, and another calling for a “top-two” primary in Idaho.

The resolution regarding the Sunshine Law, citing burdens on “volunteer treasurers,” calls for easing financial disclosure requirements for political committees or PACs by exempting them from reporting or itemizing the sources of contributions of less than $200; the current reporting threshold is $50. Under current law, that $50 reporting threshold applies to all donations, whether to candidates, political committees or PACs.

The GOP measure also calls for raising the reporting threshold for expenditures from $25 to $100; and exempting party committees from falling under the reporting law at all if they raise less than $20,000 in a year; that figure currently is $5,000.

The party’s resolution is a bit unclear in making its case that Idaho’s Sunshine Law is out of date and the $50 threshold should be raised because the 1974 law is based on “figures generated over 30 years ago.” It refers to three sections of the Sunshine Law, which apply to candidates, political committees and PACs. But the resolution also makes reference to “counties, districts and regional committees,” suggesting it may be motivated by concern over political party committees and saving work for their treasurers.

Denney, who didn’t attend the meeting, said raising the reporting threshold actually wouldn’t save those treasurers any work. That’s because volunteer treasurers already have to keep track of all donations, no matter their size, in case, for example, someone gives $40 and then later gives the same amount several more times within the same year – thus exceeding reporting thresholds.

“The reality is, you have to keep track of it,” he said.

Idaho’s Sunshine Law was enacted by a voter initiative in 1974; it passed with 77.6 percent of the vote.

“As far as transparency, I don’t think it needs to be raised – I think $50 is OK,” Denney said. “I don’t think it’s that big a deal for people to report.”

Betsy Russell is a Boise-based reporter for The Spokesman-Review, and is the current president of the Idaho Press Club.