Finance loophole

A situation in Wichita illustrates the need to tighten state laws on funding for non-candidate campaigns.

Although the Kansas Legislature has made significant improvements in campaign finance reporting laws in recent years, a current situation in Wichita points out that there still is work to be done.

On the Nov. 4 ballot, Wichita voters will decide whether to approve a $370 million bond issue for Wichita schools. Thousands of dollars reportedly are being spent, by both opponents and proponents of the bond issue, for television and newspaper ads, billboards and yard signs. Unfortunately, Wichita voters won’t know before they go to the polls who is spending all that money to try to influence their votes.

Candidates and political action committees must submit reports on contributions and expenditures several times during the campaign, including a report due this Monday for the campaign period running from July 25 to Oct. 23. New reporting laws also require candidates to report contributions over $300 up to the Thursday before the Tuesday election and require PACs to report both contributions and expenditures over $300 up to two days before the election.

Those new, later deadlines give voters important information about who is pouring money into campaigns during their closing days. However, none of those reporting deadlines apply to a bond issue like the one on Wichita’s ballot. Proponents and opponents of the bond issue are required only to report their contributions and expenditures by Dec. 31, well after that information could be of any use to voters.

A Wichita newspaper requested contribution lists from both a pro-bond and anti-bond group, but both refused to supply those lists.

Why is this information important? Many times, it might not be – but sometimes it might. A list of contributors might simply be a list of people who made small contributions to express their opinion that a bond issue should be passed or denied. On the other hand, a list released earlier of contributors to a Wichita pro-bond fundraising event was made up mostly of representatives of construction and architectural firms. Those firms, of course, have every right to contribute money, but voters should be allowed to evaluate for themselves whether those firms are primarily interested in the education of Wichita youngsters or in their own potential financial stakes in the projects.

Reporting of expenditures on noncandidate questions also arose in Wichita last year, when a ballot question on whether to allow casino gambling in the city attracted thousands of dollars of campaign donations. The issue has gotten the attention of Wichita legislators who are likely to sponsor legislation next year to require additional reporting.

That’s the right move. Contributions to non-candidate campaigns may not be a problem in smaller Kansas communities, but when in doubt, the state always should err on the side of providing more, not less, information to voters.