Monday, July 5, 2004

Next goal: Senate leader

Gardner says it's time for his reforms

By Jim Siegel
Gannett Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - After 18 months of watching lawmakers stonewall his campaign finance reform proposals, a state senator with ambitions of becoming Senate president is ready to take advantage of recent controversies and make a renewed push later this year.

• Open county and state political party operating funds to full disclosure. Currently donations to and spending by those funds are secret and unlimited. Ohio is one of only four states that allows secret fund raising. The others are Alaska, South Carolina and Michigan.

• Require issue-advocacy groups to disclose donations and expenditures. Currently these groups, which are not directly linked to political campaigns, can collect secret money and spend it on a variety of advertising to attack or praise candidates.

• Eliminate or curtail the use of county party state candidate funds. By directing donors to give to a variety of counties, candidates for statewide offices have been using these funds to skirt donation limits on individual campaigns.

"So much has happened in recent months to make the case stronger that we need bold, comprehensive reform," Sen. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, said. "I think few legislators would disagree at this point."

Two GOP consultants have come under state and federal scrutiny for their fund-raising methods. Last week, the leading candidate for president of the Senate abandoned his leadership campaign after he revealed his secret dealings with the consultants.

The controversies appear to be eroding opposition to campaign finance reforms.

Gardner most recently tried to require financial disclosure of those groups promoting or attacking candidates in Supreme Court races. His bill stalled in the House.

But Gardner is now talking much more broadly about campaign finance reform. In addition to recommending more openness in Supreme Court campaigns, Gardner wants to require full disclosure of state and county operating accounts. These accounts are maintained by political parties and not used directly for the election of candidates. State law permits these accounts to be kept secret.

Gardner is also critical of state candidate funds run by county parties.

Money collected by these funds can be given to local or statewide candidates in nearly unlimited amounts. Using county funds allows candidates to raise money well beyond individual campaign limits and makes it more difficult to establish direct links between donors and candidates. The Ohio Elections Commission ruled recently that the practice is legal.

"The only purpose in that is to get around other campaign finance rules," Gardner said.

Eliminating or curtailing these accounts would have major impacts on Republican funds in rural Muskingum, Hocking and Perry counties, where House Speaker Larry Householder's fundraising efforts have allowed them to raise nearly $400,000 - nearly all from donors outside those areas.

Gardner is working closely on reform issues with Rep. Jon Husted, R-Kettering, who is expected to take over as House speaker in 2005. Householder, R-Glenford, will leave the House because of term limits.

"This is finally an opportunity to enact significant, meaningful campaign finance reform," Gardner said. "I don't think there is any reason to accept a compromise."

One obstacle to reform has been Sen. Jeff Jacobson, R-Dayton. Jacobson has been a key opponent of disclosing county operating funds, and he wrote the law creating state candidate funds.

But the Cleveland Plain Dealer this week revealed he used the secret Montgomery County GOP operating fund to indirectly hire consultants Brett Buerck and Kyle Sisk, who helped him gain support for the Senate president seat.

Buerck and Sisk are under state and federal investigation for their fund-raising and political strategies. On Thursday, Jacobson announced he will no longer seek the Senate presidency. Gardner said he would be open to the post with Jacobson stepping aside.

"Jeff has probably lost a significant amount of credibility in standing in the way of this," said Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark.

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