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Fines and financing: An attempt at campaign finance accountability in South Dakota

South Dakota Representative Jon Hansen thinks transparent campaign financing is worth more than $50 a day. That’s the fine that the state assesses campaigns for late reports, with a maximum total penalty of $3,000.

But Hansen (R-Dell Rapids) doesn’t like that wealthy campaigns can just put off filing a report until they see fit — or, in some cases, until after a nomination or election.

“In South Dakota our filing deadlines, as they are, are very close to an actual election,” Hansen said. “And that makes sense on one level, because you want to be able to see as many contributors to a candidate’s campaign as possible. But it does make it easy to say, ‘Oops, I forgot to file,’ and just wait until after an election to file a report.”

Hansen (pictured, right) thinks it’s critical that citizens are given a chance to review who is funding a campaign, and how a candidate is spending those funds. In the past, candidates have chosen to pay down fines in order to avoid filing, or simply not paid at all: In some cases, the secretary of state’s office has been forced to hire collections agencies to get candidates to pay fines they owe.

To try and remedy what Hansen views is an inadequate penalty for lax accounting, he proposed HB 1112, a bill that would disqualify potential candidates who have failed to file a campaign finance report. Under the proposal, the secretary of state’s office would not certify a candidate who had an outstanding report due. Last week, Hansen’s bill passed through the House State Affairs Committee — “one of the most difficult committees to get a bill out of,” he said — by a vote of 9-4, which the freshman representative saw as a good sign that the bill will become law.

After some discussion of the measure, Hansen agreed to add an amendment that would exempt accounting errors which are discovered after the fact, saying that the bill was not meant to create a “gotcha situation.” Instead, it was an attempt to force greater responsibility from political candidates and their campaign bank accounts.

“There’s a big movement — there’s always been a large movement to increase the openness in government,” Hansen said. “Any time you can do that, you’ll create more public trust.”

Unfortunately, Hansen was badly outnumbered by legislative colleagues who like things the way they are: On Monday, the South Dakota House of Representatives voted down the bill, 65-4. After the bill was voted down, Hansen would not give up on the proposal, saying he would rework the bill and enter it again during the next session.


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