More Transparency, Not Less Political Speech

Dalrymple-Budget-Address.preview

The group behind the petition to empanel a grand jury to investigate Governor Jack Dalrymple for accepting contributions from individuals and businesses that he also governs is appealing the dismissal of their case. State law allows for grand jury proceedings to be initiated through a number of petition signatures equal to a certain percentage of ballots cast for governor in a given country. This group’s petitions were tossed out after a judge found that many of them weren’t from the county in question – Dunn County – and that more had no proper address information to ensure that the signers were, in fact, from inside the country.

For some reason this group – which includes a Grand Forks lawyer who has worked for former Democrat PSC candidate Brad Crabtree as well as erstwhile Republican and challenger to Dalrymple on an independent ticket Paul Sorum – thinks their signatures didn’t need proper addresses, nor need to be from within the county itself.

Which speaks pretty loudly, I think, to the caliber of legal thinking that has gone into this sorry enterprise.

At the heart of the accusations is the idea that those who are governed shouldn’t influence those who govern with their political contributions. Some might be quick to agree with that notion when we’re talking about oil industry interests showering big money down on candidates like Dalrymple, but it’s a difficult standard to square with notions about free speech.

After all, aren’t we all governed by these politicians? Which industry, which group of citizens, existing in North Dakota isn’t governed by the governor? To apply this thinking consistently, no teacher or police officer or newspaper reporter in the state would be able to give money to the governor because it could be argued that the governor sets policy that impacts our lives and livelihoods.

Thus, we all have a conflict of interest. Sure, some more than others, but issues of free speech shouldn’t hinge upon measures of degree. Just because an oil executive might have more at stake than, say, a janitor doesn’t mean that we can restrict the speech of one and not the other.

And this is a speech issue. The Supreme Court has ruled, unequivocally and in multiple cases including Citizens United vs. The FEC, that political contributions are a form of political speech. There’s no getting around it. My right to support politicians with my money, or my company’s money, is inseparable from my right to support politicians with my words.

But that isn’t to say that there isn’t legitimate reason to be concerned. One can recognize that political contributions shouldn’t be counted as bribes, but also feel uneasy about the sheer amount of money in politics.

So how do we balance concerns about influence buying with speech rights? In a word, transparency.

It’s not often I find myself agreeing with former Lt. Governor Lloyd Omdahl, but he points out in his latest column that the best way to address concerns over the oil industry (or any other interest) exerting too much influence in state politics is for better disclosure laws:

Considering all of the political, legal and constitutional restraints involved in eliminating conflicts of interest created by campaign contributions, it makes sense to turn to something that is achievable: instant disclosure of campaign contributions.

Our present campaign reports are too slow to be useful in political campaigns. By the time a suspicious contribution is reported, the campaign is over and the receiving candidates escape accountability.

With the Internet, it has become feasible to require daily posting of reports of campaign contributions. This would make it possible for improper contributions to be a matter of debate during the campaign.

Voters then could consider whether a candidate has created a conflict of interest serious enough for that candidate to be turned down in an election.

Exactly. The answer isn’t to limit political speech, but rather to make that speech (in the form of contributions) more transparent and accessible to the public.

Accusations made by the campaign by Crabtree as well as Democrat House candidate Pam Gulleson, alleging that Representative-elect Kevin Cramer had taken unethical contributions from mining interests, were covered extensively by the media, and North Dakotans clearly didn’t find Crabtree’s allegations to be all that troubling. They elected Cramer by a wide margin.

That’s the key. Allow the contributions to be disclosed in a thorough and timely manner, and then let voters decide if they think a given politician is too in the thrall of one interest or another.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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