A well-intentioned — if, in our view, misguided — effort by a local state legislator to add transparency to local campaigning appears to be stalling out in the N.H. House. William Pearson, D-Keene, is the sponsor of House Bill 1296, which would make the state campaign finance disclosure requirements applicable to all candidates in town or city elections. Under the bill, anyone running for a municipal office who spends over $500 would have to file reports with the Secretary of State disclosing contributions and expenditures in excess of $25.
The House Municipal and County Government Committee held a public hearing on the bill in January and unanimously voted to report out the bill as inexpedient to legislate. Such a report is typically the legislative kiss of death, and the House seems poised to bury the bill Thursday.
In reporting out the bill, the committee voiced its strong support for transparency in campaign financing, but was wary of letting the Secretary of State’s Office stick its nose under the local-elections tent. Instead the committee noted that state law empowers cities and towns to enact their own campaign reporting requirements and said it believes municipalities would be better served by those statutes.
The committee is right. We, too, strongly support transparency, but each town or city should be free to legislate it for itself and not have the state impose it. Cities such as Nashua and Manchester, for example, have already enacted their own campaign reporting requirements. Circumstances there, however, differ considerably from those in, say, Roxbury, and it should be up to the citizens of that town to evaluate its own political climate and decide whether campaign finance disclosure by candidates for any of its offices is warranted.
Which brings us to Keene, where the issue of campaign finance disclosure came before the City Council last year in the run-up to the November local election. Proposed by Councilor Terry Clark, the ordinance would have required candidates to report expenditures and contributions to the city clerk, including disclosing the identities of those contributing over $10, though he eventually revised it to apply only to mayoral candidates who had received $1,000 in donations.
Clark wanted the council to act on his proposal before the November election, but, with the campaign well underway, city staff balked at the tight time schedule to research and implement a reporting system, and the council put the matter on “more time” to allow for further staff review.
The backdrop for Clark’s proposal was the creep of political party involvement in the hotly contested mayoral race between Councilors George Hansel and Mitchell Greenwald. At the time, we lamented in this space that partisan money and involvement were making their way into Keene’s “nonpartisan” elections and felt the time had come for more transparency in both mayoral and council elections. Even so, allowing staff more time to consider various aspects of a reporting system such as its enforcement and ensuring it doesn’t deter potential candidates was sensible.
In taking that position, though, we noted that “the trick will ... be to maintain a focus on the issue once [last] November’s election day has passed.” The state should indeed keep out of it, but it’s time for the city to focus again on putting in place a sensible campaign finance reporting procedure.