Campaign finance reform in Ohio a priority -- again
This week's pledge by Gov. Bob Taft and Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, both Republicans, to push for sweeping changes in the way campaigns are funded in Ohio prompts the question: Why now? After all, the issue of the public's right to know who is contributing to Ohio's political parties was raised two years ago -- but no action was taken then.
Why now? Because of Ohio's battleground status in this year's presidential election, and the fact that the campaign of Republican President Bush is reportedly worried about allegations of improper fund raising and self-dealing by two consultants to one of the top Republicans in the state, House Speaker Larry Householder, according to the Washington Post.
Another prominent Republican officeholder, state Treasurer Joe Deters, is also embroiled in controversy surrounding campaign contributions from a Cleveland broker who admitted sending $50,000 to the Hamilton County GOP for Deters' campaign. The broker is now in federal prison.
But whatever is motivating state Republican leaders, led by the governor, to push this issue -- Blackwell is the exception because he publicly called for full disclosure in the financing of campaigns two years ago -- it is good to see it on the front burner.
Taft and Blackwell want the names of all contributors to independent ad campaigns to be made public, as well as any contributors to a political party's operating accounts, which fund salaries, building maintenance and activities that strengthen the party. They also want to eliminate county political party candidate funds, which allow donors to funnel money into county political parties. The parties then contribute thousands of dollars to House, Senate and statewide office campaigns.
"The only thing secret in Ohio elections should be the secret ballot," Blackwell said. "Voters are best served only when they are able to base their decisions on the whole picture."
Our sentiments exactly -- as expressed in an editorial in March 2002.
"A bill sponsored by state Sen. Dan Brady, a Cleveland Democrat, that would require political parties to open up their operating accounts to public scrutiny deserves more than a 'Dead on Arrival' label from Senate President Richard Finan, a Republican from Cincinnati," we said in the editorial.
Unfortunately, Finan, who has since left the Legislature, and Householder did not share ours and Blackwell's sense of urgency. The secretary of state has long urged the General Assembly to reform Ohio's campaign finance laws so that transparency is the order of the day.
In 2001, the governor promised to work with Blackwell to persuade the GOP-controlled Legislature to pass a measure that would give the people of Ohio the ability to scrutinize the financial dealings of the political parties.
Taft's commitment at the time came on the heels of news reports that major donors to the Ohio Republican Party's operating account -- $25,000 or more -- were promised access to the governor and other high-ranking administration officials. Under state law, the operating accounts of political parties at the state and county levels are shielded from public view. In other words, they are secret.
Now, Taft has come forward and is not only calling for action on campaign finance reform, but has pledged to have legislation passed by December.
Democrats are skeptical -- and they have good reason to be. After all, Brady's bill was dead on arrival two years ago.
Taft and other Republican leaders can prove that they're being driven by more than just presidential politics by lending their full support to any and all investigations relating to Householder, Deters and the Hamilton County Republican Party. They should also pledge that all findings will be made public -- in their entirety.