OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) A proposed ethics rule would bring more openness to the political process by stopping a practice that allows money to be transferred among political action committees, supporters say.
The rule is designed to accomplish two purposes: ensuring the public knows the source of campaign cash doled out by PACs and preventing the possibility of someone eluding the $5,000 limit on campaign donations.
Although it is acknowledged as a significant rule that would shake up the state's campaign financing structure, legislative leaders are shying away from taking a position on the proposal.
House Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah; Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, and Senate Co-President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, all declined to take a stand on the rule.
"On the surface, I probably would be supportive of that, but I am still trying to analyze how it works and what it does," said Rep. Danny Morgan, D-Prague, House Democratic leader.
Cargill, who promised to promote openness in government after assuming the top House post this year, said through a spokesman he is considering the rule but "has not really had a chance to delve into it."
"We're studying it right now," Coffee said. "We have some concerns about how it would be implemented and some questions about First Amendment and speech issues."
"We've had several discussions about this topic and others pertaining to the ethics area," Mike Morgan said. "Without question, there has been concern expressed by our political folks that this would change the way we do things if it goes into effect. We're still trying to assess if this is the right thing to do."
Ken Elliott, Ethics Commission member from Oklahoma City, sponsored the rule, which was first suggested by Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, a maverick lawmaker who has clashed with the House leadership on a number of issues.
"The rule change is designed to create or allow more openness in determining who contributes to PACs," Elliott said. "When a PAC contributes to another PAC, you really don't know where the money is coming from.
"I think it is a significant proposal to the extent it has been a fairly common practice for PACS to contribute to each other and in doing so they amass a considerable amount of money going to candidates and the public may not know the ultimate source of those funds."
Just like individuals, PACs are limited to giving candidates for office $5,000 per election cycle.
"The prohibition of PAC-to-PAC transfers removes the opportunity for abuse of the $5,000 limit," Reynolds said. "The only reason a PAC would need to give to another PAC would be to circumvent the maximum limits."
John Raley, Ethics Commission member from Ponca City, said the rule would protect donors who contribute to a PAC for one reason, only to see the money transferred to help a candidate who is not aligned with donors' interests. "I think that is wrong," he said.
Raley also said such transfers could lead "enormous power" in one PAC. "I can see it would be of tremendous benefit for someone who is seeking political power."
Raley, an appointee of Attorney General Drew Edmondson, and Elliott, an appointee of former Gov. Frank Keating, are among the three Republican members of the five-member ethics panel. The Constitution prohibits more than three members of the commission being from one party.
"The rule got bipartisan support," Raley said. "Those of us on the commission are only vaguely aware of the political affiliation of each other."
Marilyn Hughes, longtime executive director of the Ethics Commission, said PAC-to-PAC transfers are common among the states. She said she knew of no states that prohibit them.
In Alabama, there have been legislative efforts to ban such transfers for seven years. Bills implementing bans have passed the House six times, only to die in the Senate in that state.
This year, a ban has the support of Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, the lieutenant governor and top leaders in the House and Senate. It has again passed the Alabama House but chances for final approval are considered uncertain.
In Oklahoma, Gov. Brad Henry has not studied the committee transfer issue enough to have an opinion on the proposal, a spokesman said.
Unlike in Alabama, the PAC-to-PAC proposal in Oklahoma is in the form of an ethics rule, which will go into effect automatically unless legislation is enacted to block it.
Two years ago, lawmakers approved a bill that would have killed ethics rules requiring broader disclosure of political expenditures and greater use of online filing for campaign finance reports.
Henry, however, vetoed the legislation and the ethics rules went into effect.
Officials say the number of PACs are growing in Oklahoma, with more than 300 committees now on file with the Ethics Commission. The list includes several PACs controlled by legislative leaders, including committee chairmen in the House.
Cargill was criticized in late February for summoning lobbyists to one-on-one meetings with him at a public relations company that has run the campaigns of GOP House and Senate members for years.
At the meetings, funds were solicited for three political action committees controlled by Cargill and for his 100 Ideas Initiative.
Cargill and Coffee says there was nothing wrong with the fundraising effort.
Critics of the proliferation of PACs associated with sitting lawmakers say they increase the possibility that legislators can be influenced in their decisions on legislation favored or opposed by various special interests.