Put more Sunshine into U.S. Senate campaigns

March 16, 2014 

Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, the nationwide annual call for greater open government so citizens, voters and taxpayers can keep track of money in politics and other transparency issues.

With millions and even billions now invested in campaigns for public office, voters have less and less information on contributions thanks a to U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found money is free speech.

That decision aside, the U.S. Senate is operating under disclosure rules that defy the imagination. The system relies on paper -- in this day and age, paper?

Yes, the Senate's campaign filing system doesn't rely on modern online finance reports, but allows senators to send paper copies to the Federal Election Commission. The FEC then sends paper to a private contractor for keyboarding into the web. Typing?

The Senate must dispense with this antiquated system. Taxpayers must object to the high cost, too, estimated at some $500,000 annually.

The vast majority of senators cling to a paper system that denies the American public a more timely right to know who's paying to get their voices heard.

Candidates for this country's presidency, the U.S. House and most state Legislatures -- including Florida's -- must post financial statements online, so why is the Senate clinging to the tree-killing paper past?

Our senators should change

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson has indicated he's fine with electronic financial disclosure statements. But he also noted in a statement to this Editorial Board that his longtime campaign treasurer and financial people are simply used to the old ways.

Well, that must change.

Nelson's office needn't wait for a Senate decree, which the chamber has been reticent to approve for years. Recent legislative measures to require e-filing have been thwarted but th4at doesn't prevent volunteer postings.

Sen. Marco Rubio's office falls back on the chamber's paper rule, according to a response to a query from the Herald.

The senator's staff did note, however, that Rubio's leadership political action committee files online immediately, but that's not the same as campaign finance reports.

With Rubio's presidential aspirations, he, too, should file online reports post haste.

Only some 20 senators file those campaign reports online as a voluntary approach to transparency. Florida's senators should join this reasonable open government process.

The FEC wants the Senate to change the rules, making this a priority. Why wait for the inevitable? The old paper ways must be abandoned. Modernize now, not later.

Our sister McClatchy newspaper, the Sacarmento Bee, has editorialized that about 80 senators as well as Senate candidates continue "to use snail mail and couriers to deliver their reports to an obscure Senate office a few blocks from the Capitol, far from voters' inquiring eyes."

How is that good for democracy?

A transparency champion

One of the stalwarts of Florida politics -- ranked as one of the best governor's in the state's history -- stood as a champion of government transparency and accountability. Gov. Reubin Askew passed away on Thursday at age 85.

He served this state well from 1971 to 1979. One of his key achievements was being the architect of the strong ethics laws that passed with voter approval of the Sunshine Amendment to Florida's Constitution.

The 1976 law requires all public officials, candidates and employees to disclose financial information.

But Askew has to maneuver around a state Legislature that rejected his proposal for higher ethical standards for elected officials. The governor asked the people to hold those officials accountable, and the amendment passed with a huge majority -- 78 percent of the vote.

That speaks volumes about citizen concerns about transparency in government. The U.S. Senate should abide by voter wishes and agree to quick online disclosures of campaign cash.

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