Senator Reynold Nesiba (D-15/Sioux Falls) has a good idea: let’s require ballot question committees to tell us who’s funding their petition drives while they are petitioning!
“It would inform citizens so they would have some chance of knowing who is actually paying for a ballot committee’s work before they sign the petition,” said Democratic Sen. Reynold Nesiba, who helped lead a successful 2016 initiative to cap payday loan interest rates [“State Officials Open to Addressing Initiative Campaign Finance Gap,” AP via Pierre Capital Journal, 2017.10.15].
Under current state law (SDCL 12-27-22), statewide political committees—ballot question committees, candidates, PACs, and parties—only have to file one campaign finance report for an odd-numbered year. The deadline for year-end reports is the last Friday in January. That lax reporting requirement may be tolerable for candidates—we voters don’t have to take any action with respect to Billie Sutton, Marty Jackley, and Kristi Noem until next June—but ballot question committees are out seeking official voter action on petitions for months in odd-numbered years, and we don’t get to see who’s paying their circulators and office rent until almost three months after their petition deadline.
I’d love to know who’s funding the current initiative petition drives right now. I’d love to know before I sign any petition. The Governor apparently feels similarly:
Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s chief of staff, Tony Venhuizen, said in an email that the governor hasn’t reviewed a bill on the topic, but “thinks the argument for this makes sense” [AP via PCJ, 2017.10.15].
Speaker G. Mark Mickelson (R-13/Sioux Falls) is running a whole petition drive of his own on the complaint that he doesn’t like out-of-state money in ballot question campaigns, so I would think he’d jump at the chance to co-sponsor his neighbor Reynold’s idea. But he sounds oddly lukewarm about this move for transparency:
House Speaker Mark Mickelson said he has no objections to addressing the issue, but said it’s not at the top of his list of desired changes to the ballot measure process [AP via PCJ, 2017.10.15].
What? Mickelson complains about out-of-state money but doesn’t add revealing that out-of-state money during petition circulation to his list of priorities? Is Mickelson himself hesitating to make the funding sources for his petition drives public?
Senator Nesiba will want to think about the timeframe for reporting. The point is to give voters information before they take action. During election years, we require candidates to report everything they’ve taken in and spent up to twenty days before we vote. Given that more people are voting early, we might want to consider requiring more reports from candidates, perhaps one report fifty days before the election (five days before early voting begins).
Ballot question committees may start collecting signatures as early as two years before the election for which they are seeking ballot access. Most initiative drives don’t hit the streets until summer, but this year, some initiative petitioners got going in April, and referendum drives will always happen in the spring. I suggest three new campaign finance reporting times for ballot question committees in odd-numbered years:
- May 15, midway through the referendum circulation period (and close to the reporting date referendum committees must observe in even-numbered years).
- August 15, right in the thick of fair season, when petitioners often do lots of business with those summer-ending crowds.
- October 1, before the final, intense month of signature gathering.
Then again, since a number of ballot question committees get their main funding from one or a few big donors, perhaps Senator Nesiba should consider a simpler statutory scheme: subject all ballot question committee donations over $500 to the supplemental reporting requirement in SDCL 12-27-28. Candidates, PACs, and parties receiving $500+ donations within twenty days of an election have to report such big checks within 48 hours. Why not subject ballot question committees to that 48-hour reporting requirement whenever they are actively seeking voter signatures on their petitions?
When petitioners ask for our signatures, we should know who’s paying them to ask. Let’s support Senator Nesiba’s proposal and bring more transparency to campaign finance for ballot questions.