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Improving campaign finance disclosure

This is a step in the right direction.

The [Texas Ethics Commission] adopted new rules last week that, beginning this summer, will require anyone running for office to use 19 defined subject categories to describe any goods, services or other things of value purchased by their campaigns.

In the past, these candidates chose vague terms — think “public relations” — that didn’t clearly define the purpose of their political expenditures, violating state law and raising concerns about whether the money was converted to their personal use. (Campaign funds are raised from political supporters and interest groups, and don’t contain taxpayer money, so the rules about how they can be used are more lenient).

The new campaign spending rules now mean that campaigns will have specific guidance on how to define expenses in the future. For example, the candidates will now have to choose from descriptions such as “advertising expense,” “polling expense”, and “event expense,” among many others. In addition, the commission is requiring that candidates provide “sufficiently specific” descriptions of expenditures after the categories — a further increase in disclosure.

Reform advocates praised the changes. The rules should make it easier for the public to calculate candidates’ spending priorities — and make it more difficult for candidates to mask the spending of political funds, as some watchdogs have complained.

Having spent a lot of time these past couple of months wading through campaign finance forms for the Houston elections, I’m delighted to hear this. There are still many ways that things can be improved further – changing the nature of the reporting system to include basic validation checks, and requiring stricter standards for disclosure of personal finances, to name two – but stuff like this matters. Kudos to the TEC for making it happen. Coby has more.

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