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Who is paying for the noise?

Each week the decibel level rises and, soon, the din will be unbearable.

The noise?

Campaign advertising.

With the November election just around the corner, we are being assailed with an ever-greater amount of television advertising and, soon, flyers will arrive in the mail like snowflakes falling on Wolf Creek Pass during a winter storm.

Here in Pagosa Country, ears and eyes will be savaged by ads for national and state candidates. If 2008 and 2010 elections are an example, groups other than the candidates’ campaign committees — the committees he or she can claim they control — will pay for a good portion of ads.

So, who’s paying the bills?

It’s hard to know in many cases, and that’s a problem. With the proliferation of Super Pacs, 527s and so-called “social welfare” or “dark money” groups (501c6), access to vital information is blocked. Some of the riches spent by these groups will, no doubt, affect races as seemingly insignificant (in the sense of national prominence) as those for the state legislature. We need to know who supplies the funds.

It’s not that candidates can’t raise money on their own. A glance at recent campaign financing for the two major candidates in the race for U.S. Rep. for District 3 —Scott Tipton (R) and Sal Pace (D) —shows Tipton raising $1,624,103 and Pace $1,181,252.

We encounter the trouble when we consider the role of advocacy groups like Super Pacs, 527s and “dark money” organizations will be felt sharply this fall. The 527s are particularly interesting. These “groups” are permitted under a section of the Internal Revenue Code, and other law allows them to attempt to influence election campaigns so long as they do not use certain language (phrases like “vote for”), do not directly subsidize campaigns and are not under the direct control of a candidate’s campaign organization. They are allowed to collect and spend soft money — unlimited donations from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. Republicans and Democrats alike are supported by 527s.

Likewise, 501c6 “dark money” organizations, given their non-profit status, are not required to reveal donors and, with few restrictions, will step into the advertising mix with force this fall.

These groups, along with Super Pacs (which also raise and spend unlimited amounts of money so long as they don’t “coordinate” with candidates) are main sources of candidate-bashing advertising in all mediums.

Why is it a worry? After all, isn’t it a matter of free speech?

The problem is lack of disclosure. Shouldn’t we know who is paying for the trash that arrives in our mailboxes and assaults us from our TV sets? We can identify only some contributors to Super Pacs, 527s and 501c6 groups, but it is an arduous task.

Second: do we allow an ever-smaller number of powerful interests to dominate the political landscape? Are American voters being cut from the mix if money is the sole determining factor in our elections?

We must demand of candidates that they reveal all details relative to campaign finances, including all contributors and candidates’ true links to 527s and Super Pacs. We should demand from candidates a pledge that, if elected at either the state or national level, they will work to close loopholes that allow 527s and “dark money” groups that engage in campaign politics to exist, and will work diligently, in non-partisan fashion, to reform campaign finance law, perhaps creating law that limits the duration of campaigns and creates a system of public funding. Lacking this, voters must deal with the prospect of a constitutional amendment that will end the campaign finance mess we are in.

We must stop the noise and clean our house, or the American voter will be forever in the dark.

Karl Isberg

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