Representatives, Constituents Debate Transparency in “Dark Money” Panel

State representatives held a panel discussion on March 14 to discuss a sensitive subject –transparency in government. Representatives Jana Della Rosa (R-Rogers), Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock), and Bob Ballinger (R-Berryville) debated the issue and answered questions from constituents.

The discussion was sponsored by Arkansas Public Media and the Arkansas Society of Professional Journalists and took place in the fitting backdrop of the Old Supreme Court chamber at the Arkansas State Capitol. The evening’s panelists were especially relevant to the discussion as representatives Della Rosa and Tucker both recently sponsored bills designed to aid transparency in Arkansas government and elections.

“It was the first piece of legislation I filed [this term], and to me, it seemed obvious and efficient,” Della Rosa said. “In my naïveté, I thought it would pass easily. I was so very, very wrong.”

Della Rosa, whose bill requiring the filing of campaign finance reports in an online database was recently signed into law, argued that an open government benefits both legislators and their constituents.

“It’s more efficient for us. It’s got more safeguards for the candidates,” Della Rosa said. “The flip-side of it is that it has a very good search engine for the public.”

Moderator Benji Hardy of the Arkansas Times explained the issue at the heart of the transparency debate in Arkansas: the criteria to necessitate public disclosure of campaign funds. The influence of so-called “dark money,” or undisclosed campaign funds from third-party donors, was a frequent topic of the evening.

“Some election ads don’t explicitly say vote for or against this candidate,” Hardy said. “If they don’t use that express advocacy language, then Arkansas law does not require disclosure of the financing behind those ads.”

Representative Tucker elaborated on this point of express advocacy, noting that most political ads deliberately fall short of this threshold to avoid disclosure of independent expenditures.

“No one in this room has ever seen an independent expenditure ad in the state of Arkansas,” Tucker said. “They know that if they don’t engage in express advocacy, it goes from total disclosure to no disclosure whatsoever.”

Tucker said that, while independent expenditures cannot be coordinated with a candidate’s campaign, Arkansas law allows a third party to directly coordinate with a candidate running for office.

“[In Arkansas] a candidate can coordinate with a third party group and it’s not a violation of any law,” Tucker said. “We’re the only state in the country where that’s the case.”

Representative Ballinger voiced his opposition to his colleagues’ two bills, stating that a balance between security and transparency is essential for the government to function smoothly.

“In general I support the idea that a group shouldn’t be able to collude with a candidate without that being disclosed,” Ballinger said. “What I don’t want much of is regulating the people who are trying to let their voices be heard.”

Though campaign finance reform has seen varying levels of support from legislators, citizens voiced their support for efforts to increase governmental transparency.

“I think [Della Rosa’s bill] is a step in the right direction,” student Nicholas Popowitch said. “I think to tackle it at a federal level is a little too much. There’s far too many interest groups and far too many point of views. We as people can affect state action a lot easier.”

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