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How to avoid transparency: Go to the states

By Laurie Bennett

April 11, 2012 at 6:30am

Whenever the Obama administration calls for more openness in government, we wince a little.

Of course we want transparency. But in recent years, the trend has been that when public access to national data increases, political movements shift to the states.

At the state and local levels, reporting requirements on campaign finance and lobbying activities are frequently lax. Online access to information can be limited or nonexistent.

Too often, the public’s right to know is determined by the lobbyists and the campaigners, rather than by government.

In addition, there are more obstacles to national media coverage. Journalists have to gather information one state at a time, a more daunting task than going to a central data repository such as the Federal Election Commission or Congress.

Advocacy groups, particularly on the right, have wised up to this. It’s one of the reasons - along with scope and cost - that so many national organizations have begun addressing issues state by state, rather than on Capitol Hill.

Among the causes pouring big money and resources into state efforts:

  • Americans for Prosperity - The super PAC has state chapters across the country. It has pushed for state legislation such as environmental laws and has supported state legislative candidates. (This isn’t to say the PAC doesn’t target candidates for federal office. Just ask Bob Kerrey.)
  • American Legislative Council - The group is drawing widespread criticism for its role in pushing states to pass “Stand Your Ground” legislation. Other major initiatives are state budget reform and loosening of state environmental regulations.
  • American Federation for Children - Led by former Michigan Republican Chair Betsy DeVos, the organization pushes state candidates and laws supporting school choice.

While these groups frequently describe themselves as “grassroots” campaigns, they draw support from some of the wealthiest individuals and corporations in America.

Among the donors to the American Federation for Children are hedge funder Julian H. Robertson Jr. and Wal-Mart heirs Alice Walton and Jim Walton.

Billionaires Charles and David Koch support Americans for Prosperity. Charles Koch and the Coors family have backed ALEC.

One of the few things the Kochs make no secret of is their desire for secrecy. As libertarians, they oppose big government, which includes reporting requirements.

Ironically, we know this because of federal reporting requirements.

Last year, when Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) proposed legislation to require disclosure of beneficial owners of U.S. companies, Koch company lobbyists worked against it. The federal law would have overridden state rules, which rarely require much information about ownership.

In the twisted way that Washington sometimes labels legislation, another bill called the “Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation Act” drew Koch support.

Transparency in this instance referred to an assessment of the economic impact of regulations governing energy and manufacturing sectors, not on the data collected by those regulations.

In this context, the Kochs lobbied for transparency. The Koch Industries PAC also contributed to House members who supported the bill.

For info on transparency requirements at the state and local levels, see Sunshine Review.

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1 Comments

  • #1.   paulina maglalng 04.11.2012

    Wal-Mart is also a member of the ALEC Board, and in 2005 headed the ALEC Task Force that ratified the law that may protect the killer of Trayvon Martin and other unarmed victims. Wal-Mart is also the largest seller of rifles and ammunition in the U.S. Shocking? No

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