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Archive for Thursday, April 19, 2007

Reform falls short

The campaign reforms approved by the Kansas Legislature this year represent only a marginal improvement for state voters.

April 19, 2007

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Campaign reform legislation signed by the governor this week makes a couple of marginal improvements in the law, but woefully misses the mark on a couple of other issues.

Probably the most positive part of the legislation is its requirement that automated campaign telephone calls identify who is paying for the message the calls are delivering. The bill doesn't get rid of the annoying "robo calls" but at least it demands that voters be informed about the source of the information they are receiving.

The legislation also makes the common-sense change to allow candidates to file campaign finance reports electronically with the Kansas Secretary of State's Office starting next year. Candidates currently are required to file campaign finance reports on paper to the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, which then makes the information available to voters on its Web site.

Legislators, however, missed the boat by not following the electronic filing measure with a requirement that candidates report campaign contributions and expenditures in the closing days before the election. The last required campaign finance report in Kansas is due 11 days before the election. Contributions and expenditures in the last 11 days of the campaign aren't required to be made public until months after the election. Final campaign reports for November elections, for instance, aren't due until the following January.

In a hotly contested race, considerable money can be poured into a campaign in the closing days, and voters have a right to know where that money is coming from. With electronic filing, it would be easy to require additional reporting in the days before the election, and the legislators missed a golden opportunity by not including such a requirement in this year's legislation.

The other disappointing measure in the campaign finance bill was a wording change in the law that prohibits legislators from soliciting contributions from lobbyists during the legislative session. Lawmakers cleverly inserted the word "knowingly," thereby making it illegal only to "knowingly" solicit such contributions.

This one-word change makes it next to impossible for the state's Ethics Commission to enforce this aspect of the law. Any legislator who is found to have solicited contributions from lobbyists need only say that the solicitation was conducted by staff members without his or her knowledge. Case closed.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius noted this problem when she signed the bill, and urged legislators to revisit the issue "to ensure accountability is maintained." That's all well and good, but it also seems like a case of putting the legislative foxes in charge of the ethics henhouse.

In sum, the legislation makes campaign finance reporting easier and opens a big loophole in a legislative ethics provision while taking only a token step toward providing the public more information about who is financing political campaigns.

Taken as a whole, it doesn't seem like a particularly good deal for Kansas voters.

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