A bill to require Arkansas political candidates file their campaign finance reports through an online system advanced out of a committee in the Arkansas House of Representatives Wednesday.
Republican Rep. Jana Della Rosa’s bill, HB1427, mandates that Arkansas legislative, judicial and state constitutional office candidates utilize a new system now being installed by the Secretary of State’s office. In the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs, the lawmaker from Rogers argued that switching from the current mostly paper-based system to an electronic one makes campaign finance reports more searchable and thus more transparent.
“What I’m trying to do with this bill, is making sure the public gets their piece out of it. Our piece out of it is more accuracy and easier to use, more convenience. Their benefit out of it is a searchable database which they do not have today,” she told the committee.
Della Rosa likened the process involved in filing reports through the new system to entering information into an electronic check book. A candidate can enter separate campaign contribution amounts and the system automatically adds up the tallies that could be later viewed in a comprehensive report.
Republican Rep. Jim Dotson of Bentonville questioned whether a grace period could be granted to candidates who encounter technological issues when they finalize their reporting.
“Technology is not always perfect, even if it is a great system. There’s certain challenges that always happen with technology,” he said.
But Della Rosa argued that candidates would have a sufficient window to finalize their entries.
“You have 15 days to file a report…The 15 days is the grace period,” Della Rosa replied.
“There used to be an old joke that we lived so far back in the country that we didn’t get the Saturday night Grand Ole Opry until Sunday afternoon,” said Republican Rep. Douglas House of North Little Rock. “I’m one of those people, because I got terrible internet service out in my neighborhood. Under this system, can I bring a thumb drive with my reports on them, they can stick them in the plug and download them?”
Della Rosa replied in the affirmative. Her bill is similar to one she sponsored in the 2015 legislative session which failed to pass out of the House. Her current bill would require a two-thirds vote in the chamber because it amends acts initiated by Arkansas voters.
Republican Rep. Charlotte Douglas of Alma also pushed back on the notion that a new system would be better.
“I don’t see a public outcry at the grassroots level,” Douglas remarked. “I’m not having any mail on this. I’d never had anybody say we’d like for you guys to be more transparent in your filing.”
Douglas closed her statement with a rhetorical question.
“It’s a question of where really this is being driven from. If it’s not grassroots Arkansas, who are we really making this easier for?”
While presenting the bill, Della Rosa brought along Arkansas Chief Deputy Secretary of State Kelly Boyd and Director of the Arkansas Ethics Commission Executive Director Graham Sloan. Sloan said while answering another lawmaker’s question that the new system would improve his staff’s chances of finding discrepancies in campaign finance reporting.
“We look at a lot of reports and believe it or not, legibility is an issue. An electronic report is legible,” he said.
Candidates are given a 30-day “cure period” to correct any discrepancies on their reports, Sloan said, but that time only applies to those who turn the reports in on time.
He said the Ethics Commission in the past has waived sanctions for candidates who fail to file reports on time because they have a “good cause,” like being admitted to the hospital around the deadline, or being impeded from mailing their reports due to road conditions caused by an ice storm.
Della Rosa said she too hopes the new system would solve many errors occurring in the paper-based system.
“There’s a lot of negative things that we deal with right now,” she said. “And I was trying to fix a lot of those. But by the same token I wanted to make sure the public got their piece out of it which was the ultimate goal and that was a useable database.”
Della Rosa said that the Secretary of State’s office intends to conduct training sessions on the new system for candidates.
Della Rosa said that the Secretary of State’s office intends to conduct training sessions on the new system for candidates over the summer. If the bill becomes law, the electronic filing requirement would go into effect October 1st of this year. The bill advanced on a voice vote, with some dissent.It now heads to the full House.