- State Officers & Employees
While there have been laws regulating campaign finance in Oklahoma since statehood, the laws had so many loopholes that there was no meaningful reporting of campaign contributions and expenditures for more than six decades.
In the wake of the Watergate scandal, many states enacted campaign finance reforms and other “ethics” laws. Oklahoma enacted the Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Act on May 4, 1974. It became effective immediately for the 1974 elections. Campaign reports were filed before and after elections, contributors of more than $200 were identified and a contribution limit of $5,000 per family was imposed. There was limited financial disclosure by candidates. Filing was with the State Election Board. Criminal penalties for violations were enforced by the District Attorneys.
During the 1980s, there was significant criticism that campaign reports revealed too little and that there was virtually no prosecution for violations.
On June 13, 1986, the Legislature enacted the Oklahoma Ethics Commission Act. It immediately repealed or replaced the old campaign finance laws. The Act created a nine-member Ethics Commission, with three members each appointed by the Governor, President Pro Tempore of the Senate and Speaker of the House. The Executive Director of the Commission was appointed jointly by the Governor, President Pro Tempore and Speaker to serve a two-year term. For the first time, lobbyists were required to register and report expenditures. (Previously, lobbyist regulation was the province of each House of the Legislature.) Limited conflict of interest laws for legislators were part of the Act. Enforcement continued to be through the District Attorney (or Attorney General) with referral authority residing in the Commission.
Two years later, unhappy with the activities of the Commission, the Legislature repealed or replaced the Act and created in its place the Oklahoma Campaign Compliance and Ethical Standards Act. The composition of the new Council on Campaign Compliance and Ethical Standards resembled closely the Ethics Commission. There were nine members, three each appointed by the Governor, President Pro Tempore and Speaker. Commission members became Council members for the balance of their terms. The Executive Director was appointed for a two-year term by the Governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate, from three names submitted by the Council. The most significant difference was that the Legislature placed registration and reporting forms for candidates and lobbyists in the statutes, effectively denying the Council any authority to prescribe standards for campaign finance or lobbyist reporting. Stringent procedures for investigations were included in the new Act, with criminal penalties still used as the enforcement mechanism.
Current Commission: Elevation to Constitutional Status
In 1990, the people approved State Question 627 creating Article XXIX of the Oklahoma Constitution, creating the current Oklahoma Ethics Commission. The question was placed on the ballot at the Runoff Primary Election on September 18, 1990, by Initiative Petition 341.
The impetus for the initiative petition came from the Constitutional Revision Study Commission (“CRSC”) created by Governor Henry Bellmon.
The report of the comments on the Ethics Commission proposal are as follows:
The addition of this altogether new constitutional article grows out of increasing concern for ethical conduct and political campaigns and public service. Recent governors elected from both parties have expressed their own concerns, and the legislature provided for a limited statutory agency in 1986 and 1988. Doubts about the agency's funding, jurisdiction, and power led the CRSC to explore the possibility of replacing it with a new agency armed with the prestige, authority, and continuity of constitutional status.
The proposed Commission will carefully, but realistically, balance several interests. Appointed by the leaders of the three branches of state government, the Commission will be bipartisan. The provision that no single Congressional District may provide more than one member assures a reasonable geographical balance. Once named to the Commission, its members will be independent of outside pressures, for they are guaranteed secure five year terms. They may be removed only through the same impeachment proceedings that applied to elected state officials.
The new Commission will have broad powers to establish rules for the ethical conduct of campaigns and of the public actions of state officials and employees. A novel procedure provides both legislative and executive checks and balances over that power. The legislature may reject a rule by joint resolution, but the governor may cause a rule to become effective by vetoing the resolution. The legislature retains the right to override such a veto, thereby conclusively rejecting the rule. Ethical rules not acted upon by the legislature during the session in which they are submitted will take effect automatically. Such rules may, however, be later annulled through the normal legislative process. The Commission will be cloaked with full authority to enforce those rules through the regular judicial process.
The voters of Oklahoma overwhelmingly approved SQ 627 adding Article 29 to the Oklahoma Constitution. This establishes the Commission’s function as a core government function and protects its continuity as a governmental entity.
The first five-member Commission took office in July of 1991.