Campaign cash reporting rules miss the mark

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Thursday marked the deadline for city candidates to file campaign finance disclosure statements with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. Candidates running to lead Corridor communities reported tens of thousands of dollars in contributions and spending. In Cedar Rapids’ eight-way mayoral race alone, contributions topped $200,000.

Candidates spent months raising and spending those bucks. They sought individual contributions. They held fundraisers. They poured money into mailings, signs and Web advertising.

So, how long did the public get to scrutinize those contributions? Five days.

Under Iowa law, city candidates who raise or spend more than $1,000 are required to file a campaign cash disclosure. But the law requires only one report before Election Day, due five days before the vote. A few candidates who raised money in 2016 disclosed those dollars in January. But for most hopefuls, Thursday’s filing was the first time voters got a look at who is paying for their campaigns.

It’s true; in most towns, city elections are hardly the stuff of big dollar intrigue. But in larger cities, such as Cedar Rapids, more expensive campaigns can attract hefty donations.

Donors, no doubt, understand that hefty, high-stakes decisions often are made by city officials regarding zoning, business regulations, economic development incentives, city contracts and project funding. Leaving just a few days, straddling a weekend, to scrutinize donations before the election makes it far more difficult for voters and taxpayers to explore the possible connections between policy issues and political cash.

Money matters, but what seems to matter more under Iowa’s rules is convenience for candidates.

It’s little better at the state level, where a legion of candidates for governor have spent much of 2017 on the campaign trail but aren’t required to tell us how they’re bankrolling those efforts until January. Even in an election year, state candidates are required to file just four disclosures. And any cash raised or spent during the critical final days of the campaign is left undisclosed until the following January.

It’s a horse-and-buggy system, a throwback to when candidates filed reports on paper. In an age of electronic filing, more frequent reporting seems like a no-brainer. And with absentee ballots, many votes are cast long before the campaign cash deadline.

The city disclosure process, in particular, must include another filing deadline that allows for far earlier public scrutiny of contributions and spending, ahead of early voting. If the state wants to leave limited requirements in place in some communities based on population, that’s doable. But in larger cities where expensive, elaborate campaigns now last for months, voters deserve more than five days.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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