Although its increased limits on campaign contributions have drawn criticism, a compromise campaign finance bill passed by the Kansas Legislature last week has other provisions that will go a long way toward opening contribution records to appropriate public scrutiny.
Perhaps the most significant part of the bill are new provisions for reporting contributions in the last days of a political campaign. Starting 11 days before Election Day, state and local candidates would have to report every contribution of $250 or more and all political action committees would have to report all expenditures of $1,000 or more. Those reports would be due the next day in the secretary of state's office for state candidates and PACs and in the county election office for local candidates.
Currently, donations in the last days of the campaign don't have to be reported until at least two months after the election. That means advertising and large donations can be used in an effort to influence an election without voters having any information before the vote about who is making those donations or buying those ads.
The new legislation also requires that telephone messages advocating the election or defeat of a candidate for state or local office to contain a statement about who paid for the message.
Some legislators opposed the law because it raises the limits on individual campaign contributions. The limits would go from $500 to $750 for House candidates and from $1,000 to $1,500 for Senate candidates. The limit for statewide campaigns would remain at $2,000.
Having smaller contributions from more donors may be more democratic, but the size of the contributions seems less important than full and timely disclosure of those contributions to voters. Even with the increases, the limits are relatively low in comparison to what it costs to run a House or Senate campaign. The important thing is to give information to voters - before they vote - about who is supporting certain candidates and causes. It's then up to voters to assess how last-minute contributions or last-minute media buys by PACs might influence their choice of a candidate.
The bill has gone to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius who said last week she would "take a very careful look" at the bill before deciding whether to sign it. A careful look certainly is warranted, but the benefits of timely reporting of campaign contributions and PAC expenditures offer a strong recommendation for this bill.