Another election funded from the shadows

Published 9:36 pm Monday, March 22, 2010

In the recent mayor’s race in Birmingham, more than a million dollars was spent between the two finalists. Campaigns, even in a city election, have become expensive because of media costs. Gone are the days of Big Jim Folsom at the county seat, coming on the back of a flatbed truck with a band, talking directly to voters. It is now about television and radio, direct mail, and the dreaded automated calls.

Yet, when voters want to know who contributed huge sums in the Birmingham campaign, it becomes impossible because of so many PAC-to-PAC transfers. Which developer or what law firm contributed and what business they have with the city is important public information. Most likely it will never be known.

A PAC is short for “political action committee,” and its original intent was for people or constituencies to pool their contributions. Now PACs are often formed by individuals, and the practice of transferring money between PACs many times over is done to hide its source.

The laws in our state allow moving political contributions at will, and it makes it impossible to know who is giving and why.

That is a threat to our state, and to democracy. Knowing who is paying for the campaign television commercial, or the attack ad on the radio, or the hit piece stuffed in the mailbox, is essential knowledge for voters. Who is paying for a message is at times as important as the message itself, and before a ballot is cast, that knowledge should be made public.

And the problem is getting worse. State officials say that there are almost 800 PACs registered with the state, up from under 200 just 20 years ago. That doesn’t include county and city PACs that only operate locally.

The Alabama House has worked to stop the political money laundering. Since 2001, Rep. Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville, has proposed a PAC-to-PAC transfer ban. For the last several years it has passed the House unanimously, only to see it die in the Senate for a variety of reasons.

McLaughlin and all of us in the House have been adamant about cleaning up Alabama campaign finance. There is little doubt his opponent in the November election will get major contributions from PACs. Unfortunately, there may be no way of knowing exactly what special interests are funding the opponent, because the people who want to stay in the shadows keep fighting to see that they can remain there. It’s time to end the practice of PAC-to-PAC transfers.

Jimmy Martin is a state representative of Chilton County.