Campaign e-filing bill falls short in 1st vote

A bill to make it easier for the public to see who's bankrolling Arkansas' most high-profile political campaigns failed in its first committee vote Wednesday.

Even though nine of the 11 members present voted for it, there weren't enough yes votes cast to crack a simple majority in the 20-member panel.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, will have one more chance to pass the bill in committee.

The measure would require candidates for statewide and district offices to file their campaign donation reports into an electronic system that's easy for researchers and other residents to analyze and understand.

"This is about transparency for the people of Arkansas," Della Rosa told the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs on Wednesday. "It's 2015. It's electronic filing. We've had the capability for quite some time."

House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, also spoke in favor: "I think this is one of those changes that is good for us. ... I ask that you support it."

Arkansas is one of the few states in the nation that permits statewide candidates to file paper campaign finance reports, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette survey found last year. Many Arkansas candidates -- especially in high-dollar races for governor, attorney general, Supreme Court, House and Senate -- file hundreds of pages of donation and expense reports on paper. Researchers often spend days or weeks recording and analyzing them.

National public-interest groups have pushed for computerized campaign finance filings for more than a decade, saying they are essential so voters can learn quickly where candidates are getting their financial support.

The Arkansas secretary of state already has an electronic system in place that can collect campaign filing information into a computerized database. But legislators don't require themselves and other political candidates to use it.

In a voice vote on Della Rosa's House Bill 1233, most committee members present said "aye." One or two said no.

Then committee Chairman Nate Bell, R-Mena, asked for a roll call vote, saying he wanted to be sure the measure had a majority of 11 yes votes from the 20-member committee.

The roll call showed nine votes for, one against.

"Rep. Della Rosa, your bill fails," Bell said.

In response to questions from Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, Bell said the roll call was at the chairman's discretion.

In an interview afterward, Bell said several members walked in and out of the room during Wednesday's meeting to present bills in other committees.

Thirteen members were present when the meeting convened at 10 a.m., he said. The needed majority of 11 were present during votes on two bills presented, including Della Rosa's. Bell, as is customary for the chairman, did not vote.

"Any time there is a contested bill coming through committee, I'm especially careful to make sure the votes are counted correctly," Bell said. "There were 11 members in the room at the time. I heard at least one no vote and I didn't vote, so I knew there was likely a problem. That is why I used my prerogative as chairman to call the roll."

After the meeting, Della Rosa said she plans to take the bill back to the committee when more members are present, later this week or next.

"Eleven on the committee are co-sponsors of the bill, so I think the votes are there to pass it," she said.

"A bill can have two defeats," Della Rosa added. "I still get one more shot."

The bill also would provide exemptions from filing electronically. Any candidate who doesn't have access to reliable broadband Internet access or who has another "substantial hardship" could turn in paper reports, Della Rosa said.

Rep. Bob Ballinger, the sole no vote, said during the committee meeting that he works with an "old accountant" who doesn't file Ballinger's campaign finance reports electronically. The Hindsville Republican wondered if that would qualify as a hardship.

Ballinger asked whether he "would have to beg him to learn how to use the new system or find a new accountant to take care of it" if the bill passed.

"That would be my recommendation," Della Rosa replied.

The bill also calls for an upgrade to the state's current electronic filing system, to make it easier for candidates to submit long campaign finance reports. That's contingent on legislators setting aside $50,000 to $100,000 needed for the upgrade, Della Rosa said.

Metro on 03/12/2015