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Curbing conflicts of interest in campaigns

By Staff | Jan 5, 2013

Some citizens in Dunn County have been trying to initiate a grand jury to consider the conflict of interest involved in campaign contributions to Governor Jack Dalrymple by energy companies regulated by the Industrial Commission.

They allege that such contributions are a form of bribery intended to buy influence in the Governor’s decisions. The same issue has also been raised in regard to members of the Public Service Commission.

Those on the receiving end of these contributions have denied that campaign contributions have influence on their decisions. However, Ed Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, disagrees.

When corporations make contributions, “it’s a business decision, not a political decision,” he claims.

So while the recipients of these contributions argue that these contributions have no influence on their decisions, the contributors are thinking otherwise. As hard-nosed businesspeople, they aren’t dissipating the company’s resources on politicians without expecting some kind of payback.

From their perspective, the intent of these contributions is unmistakable – to reap more than they plant. After all, they are not charitable organizations. They expect an investment in politicians to return much more than the contribution.

This claim can be validated when we see that contributions go only to politicians who can influence business operations. Elected officials holding offices that have no economic impact on corporations get no contributions.

Take the office of state treasurer, for example. Candidates for this office do not attract campaign contributions because they don’t make decisions that can reward a contributor. The same is true about the state auditor and, to some degree, the tax commissioner.

The low level of contributions to offices without economic decision-making authority tells us that campaign contributions are a matter of business and not politics. So it is appropriate to worry about conflicts of interest.

But it is unfair to single out the Industrial Commission or the Public Service Commission because conflicts of interest are more widespread than just a few state offices.

Every official with the capacity to make decisions with economic impact has a conflict of interest when accepting contributions. This includes state legislators as well as county and city governing board members.

The first cure that comes to mind is to outlaw campaign contributions by businesses, unions or others that could benefit from governmental decisions. If we could pass laws prohibiting corporate or organization contributions, there probably would not be enough money to run a decent campaign.

The idea of public funding of campaigns has been around for a long time. Several states are doing it. But this is North Dakota and our frugal taxpayers would never countenance the use of public funds for political purposes.

Considering all of the political, legal and constitutional restraints involved in eliminating conflicts of interest created by campaign contributions, it makes sense to turn to something that is achievable instant disclosure of campaign contributions.

Our present campaign reports are too slow to be useful in political campaigns. By the time a suspicious contribution is reported, the campaign is over and the receiving candidates escape accountability.

With the high-speed Internet, it has become feasible to require daily posting of reports of campaign contributions. This would make it possible for improper contributions to be a matter of debate during the campaign.

Voters could then consider whether or not a candidate has created a conflict of interest serious enough to be turned down in an election.

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