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ANALYSIS: Bringing up the rear

This analysis by Julia Vaughn, executive director of Common Cause Indiana, was originally published by the Indiana Capital Chronicle  and is republished according to Indiana Capital Chronicle republishing guidelines.

In Indiana, there’s been no serious effort to reform campaign finance laws since the mid-1990s and neglecting the issue has gained us another Hall of Shame moment.

A recent study published by the nonpartisan Coalition for Integrity ranked Indiana’s campaign finance laws 51st, weaker than every other state and the District of Columbia. From transparency to enforcement, Indiana’s score was eight points lower than next-to-worst Utah. It’s both embarrassing and outrageous.

Why does it matter? Donating large amounts of money to political campaigns or to support or oppose a candidate remains the best way to influence the policy-making process. That old saying: “He who pays the piper, calls the tune” is an apt description of larger donors and their sway.

Strong laws with fair and vigorous enforcement are important. This is because the executive and legislative branches not only decide how to spend our state tax revenue but are also responsible for divvying up most of the federal funds that come to our state. As long as Indiana has weak campaign finance laws that allow wealthy individuals and special interests to buy themselves a place at the front of the line, we can’t be assured that decisions are being made for the right reasons.

Most of the money spent on state legislative races is raised by the caucus leadership and the PAC’s under their control. Leadership raises the money from individuals and entities who want something from the legislature, then parcel it out to those caucus members who toed the party line. Those members with the courage to defy the party line find themselves cut off from the leadership’s fundraising war chest.

Indeed, the ability to control fundraising is one of the most effective tools the caucus leaders have to ensure their members put the interests of their party first, and their constituents second. That’s how unpopular laws like Senate Enrolled Act 1 — the latest abortion restrictions — get passed.

And since most Hoosiers don’t make significant political contributions, a system that allows unlimited amounts from wealthy interests makes politicians beholden to those who write the biggest checks. This results in a public left with little faith in their government.

Indiana’s deficiencies

The Coalition for Integrity’s report rated states on various aspects of campaign finance laws, including enforcement, contribution limits and transparency. In each of those categories our laws fail to protect the public interest.

For example, strong campaign finance enforcement features an independent agency with the ability to investigate violations of the law and issue serious sanctions as consequences. In Indiana, we have the Indiana Election Commission, a four-member group appointed by the Governor with almost no authority and even less willingness to punish candidates who break or ignore the law.

Even if they did, the paltry penalties the law allows them to exact don’t serve as disincentives.

In Indiana, there are no limits on what individuals and PACs can give to campaigns. And, while labor unions and corporations do face contribution limits, they are high compared to other states. At the federal level, unions and corporations are prohibited from giving money directly to candidates and parties and contributions from individuals and PACS are limited. That should be the standard in Indiana as well.

Indiana lawmakers have rejected any attempt to prohibit certain contributions or put reasonable limits in place, claiming instead that transparency is the best approach. But our system fails spectacularly in that category.

Since the disastrous SCOTUS Citizens United ruling, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in “independent expenditures,” or money spent by super PACS and certain nonprofits to elect or defeat a candidate, often in the form of television ads. Indiana requires no disclosure about this spending, giving these groups the cover of darkness to wield their influence. At a minimum, those groups who make expenditures to influence elections in Indiana should be subject to the same laws as candidates and parties.

Indiana’s last effort at campaign finance reform was spurred by spontaneous comments from Gov. Frank O’Bannon during his victory speech on election night in 1996. The race for governor that year shattered previous spending records, and O’Bannon understood that campaigns more focused on money than voters were misguided. Sadly, his leadership on the issue wasn’t enough to convince the state legislature to act. Until they do, the system will continue to benefit politicians and fail Hoosiers.

We deserve better than dead last.

Julia Vaughn is the Executive Director of Common Cause Indiana. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. The Washington, D.C.-based group was founded in 1970 and works to create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; promotes equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and empowers all people to make their voices heard in the political process.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Niki Kelly for questions: info@indianacapitalchronicle.com.

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