Exile on Jones Street: Move along, nothing to see here

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kirk rossby Kirk Ross

A politician filed a campaign finance report. You’ll never believe what happened next.

Nothing. Not a damn thing.

This is a story about how the changing news business and the state’s antiquated method of record-keeping has combined to leave most of us in the dark when it comes to who is financing the campaigns of our elected officials and why.

It’s why the other side of politics and policy, the side that is awash in cash and checks, is just not a part of the debate. We know there is influence being peddled out there somewhere. We hear it in bits and pieces as things surface and become news because of indictments or charges flung by political opponents, but we don’t see the steady gush of money money money money.

Blame part of the lack of information, especially at the local level, on the economic decline of formal news organizations and dwindling reporting resources. But also blame it on the state’s stubborn refusal to keep up with technology. We still let politicians, even those representing tens of thousands of people, send in handwritten reports detailing the flow of money from individuals, corporations and political action committees with sturdy, patriotic names.

Right now only about a third of our legislators file their campaign finance reports electronically. What that means is that working through just who is dispensing dollars to whom becomes much more difficult. The work of reviewing the contributions and expenditures has to be done by hand. It also means that to sift through it in any meaningful way, you pretty much have to create your own database.

Imagine my delight after recently downloading Rep. John Blust’s handwritten quarterly and finding it runs 30 pages.

We still let politicians, even those representing tens of thousands of people, send in handwritten reports detailing the flow of money from individuals, corporations and political action committees with sturdy, patriotic names.

And that’s just the beginning.

You also have to take into consideration that garbage-in equals garbage-out. Penmanship among campaign treasurers is not consistent. Nor is the reporting of required items such as an individual’s employment. There are a lot of people who are major stakeholders in certain industries who just show up as “retired” as well as the occasional corporate matriarch who prefers the title of “homemaker.”

These are not the reports of so-called “dark money” groups and secretive nonprofits with undisclosed donors. They’re reports of contributions in the supposedly high-disclosure, highly regulated state campaign-finance system.

It’s all perfectly legal, of course. And it says something about the state of campaign-finance reporting across the nation that North Carolina still ranks high among its peers in transparency.

But what we’re learning is that despite the reporting requirements, anyone trying to access and use the information confronts major hurdles. When it comes to sifting through the influence of money on politics and policy in the state of North Carolina it still takes a human being and a lot of time.

Change may or may not be on the horizon. This week, the Senate voted to concur with the House’s version of an elections bill that would be a good start at affording more transparency in the system. The bill — S403 — started as mostly a technical-corrections bill, but the House added requirements for electronic reporting, requiring candidates in primaries and general elections to file reports electronically starting in 2017.

It’s a start, but it means that we’ll go through two more major election cycles under the inadequately informative system. And Senate leaders are talking tough going into a conference committee on the bill, so it’s also iffy whether it will even pass with the new provisions.

The people might have the right to know who is funding their elections, but they could sure use a little more help exercising it.