Monday, September 04, 2023

Ethics Commission director resigns in protest over perpetual lack of funding

When it comes to oversight and accountability, there are few two agencies that Oklahoma's elected officials have traditionally disliked more -- and funded less -- than the Oklahoma Ethics Commission and the State Auditor & Inspector. With the former, years of legislative neglect (or outright hostility) have led to the resignation-in-protest by the Ethics Commission's executive director.

The Oklahoma Ethics Commission has something of a convoluted history, with the Legislature creating then replacing a weak reporting framework, and culminating with a statewide vote on State Question 627 in 1990, which passed with 63.3% of the vote, creating the new agency by a constitutional amendment.

Among other duties, the Ethics Commission is tasked with setting certain ethical rules for elected officials and state employees, receiving and publishing campaign finance reports and spending by lobbyists. Basic stuff to ensure good government and transparency for the citizens.

Perpetually hamstrung by grossly inadequate funding, the Ethics Commission has operated with a barebones staff for as long as I can remember (back to 2006). When candidates violate ethics rules, the Commission rarely has the resources to properly pursue the offenders. 

With the exponential growth of dark money in Oklahoma politics, it is absolutely shameful that the Ethics Commission is not given the necessary funds to carry out it's constitutional work.

But, the fox is guarding the henhouse. The buck stops with legislators and the Governor for failing to fund this essential piece of transparency and accountability to all Oklahomans.

Back in July, OEC Executive Director Ashley Kemp submitted her resignation (letter here), specifically citing frustration over the continued neglect of funding for this vital agency. The OEC is now searching for a new director, with an application deadline of September 15th.

Here are some good reads on the topic:

I don't often agree with Tulsa World editorials, but this one is spot on:

Editorial: Pay attention to the resignation letter from the Ethics Commission executive director

As campaign finance sophistication leads to untraceable donors and as politicians get better at hiding their questionable behavior, the Ethics Commission needs more resources to root out violations.

That isn’t happening, and it’s not new. Since its creation in 1990, the agency has struggled to get the kind of funding and staffing needed to do its job.

For all the failures of Oklahoma Legislatures, this is one of the biggest.

The problem is that the people the commission oversees are the ones with power over its appropriations. The Legislature even limited its ability to keep fees that are collected, putting a $150,000 cap on what it can spend from fees, with the rest going to the state’s General Revenue Fund.

Executive Director Ashley Kemp submitted her resignation last week out of frustration with lawmakers continuing to deprive the agency of its needs, according to a story from Tulsa World reporter Barbara Hoberock. Kemp is right.

The agency asked the Legislature for a budget of slightly more than $1 million and received $687,950. Oklahoma has more than $6 billion in savings and enjoyed overflowing coffers this year.

The requested amount was paltry against the eye-popping funds raised for modern campaigns.

With the U.S. Supreme Court equating campaign donations with free speech, it’s easier to hide where donations originate. At least $20 million in dark money flowed into last year’s gubernatorial race, on top of what candidates raised. Even at the local level, the Tulsa school board races are topping $100,000, with tens of thousands contributed by unidentified donors.

Strict rules exist on communication between candidates and these groups, just as there are public finance reporting requirements and restrictions on the kinds of loans and donations campaigns can accept.

All of this falls to the Oklahoma Ethics Commission to sort out. The agency oversees and enforces rules governing state campaigns and rules of ethical conduct for state officers and employees.

The only people who benefit from the lack of this kind of oversight are those in — or who want to be in — elected office. The Ethics Commission has never enjoyed popularity in state appropriations.

In 2018, the agency filed suit against the state, arguing that lawmakers were required to appropriate enough funding for the agency to perform its duties. In a 5-4 vote, the Oklahoma Supreme Court sided with the Legislature, saying the agency must be treated the same as other agencies.

It’s becoming a stretch to accept that the Legislature is doing that when the Ethics Commission is shortchanged each year.

The Ethics Commission was created through an initiative petition by Oklahoma voters who were unhappy with attempts by the Legislature to create a campaign oversight agency. Lawmakers were not good at policing themselves and still aren’t.

The big business of campaigns frustrates voters trying to determine who influences candidates and elected officials. For many, it’s a turnoff to civic life, and that is a danger to democracy.

If a state budget reflects the priorities of its people, then ethics ranks pretty low. Lawmakers ought to do better by the Ethics Commission.

What the Legislature has done with the Ethics Commission is inexcusable and shameful. It's likely too late to do anything meaningful to help before the 2024 election cycle, but hopefully the Legislature can get its act together and address this next session.


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