If it ain’t broke, let’s not fix it. Especially with other matters that, just possibly, might be more pressing.
The chairmen of the Kansas House and Senate election committees both have expressed interest in scrutinizing the Kansas Ethics Commission, which is charged with enforcing campaign finance laws in the state. Scott Schwab, who heads the House Elections Committee, said his committee will debate taking away the commission’s enforcement duties and imposing term limits on its members. One proposal is to have county prosecutors and the attorney general’s office pursue the cases of elected officials who violate ethics and campaign finance laws.
Schwab’s interest in the ethics commission appears to have it roots in complaints from fellow Republican legislators who believe the commission is more aggressive in investigating and fining conservative candidates than in pursuing complaints against moderates and liberals. Although the commission has fined and been criticized by both Republicans and Democrats, according to Schwab, the perception of unfairness “taints everything” the commission does.
It’s often said that perception is the same as reality, but changing the way a body like the Ethics Commission does business probably should be based on verifiable fact rather than on a perception that it is being unfair.
The fact is that Schwab and other Kansas conservatives will have ample opportunity to alter both the perception and the reality of the ethics commission through appointments to that body. The governor appoints two members of the commission, and the Senate president and House speaker each appoint one. All are conservative Republicans. The secretary of state, the attorney general and the chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court each have one appointment, as do the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.
Assuming those doing the appointing are true to their conservative or liberal leanings, it seems likely the nine-member commission would have a solid majority of conservative members.
As the commission’s executive director, Carol Williams, pointed out, it’s easy enough for leaders to replace members they think aren’t doing a satisfactory job. Ideally, the people of Kansas probably would prefer for the commission to be as nonpartisan and autonomous as possible, rather than shifting in the political winds. Williams also is concerned that enforcing campaign finance laws would be a low priority for the attorney general or county prosecutors with large caseloads — and perhaps some political biases of their own.
It’s unfortunate that political agendas seem to be driving many issues that lawmakers have been promising to bring to the Legislature this year. In the big scheme of things, it seems that lawmakers have more important issues to debate than the emasculation of the Kansas Ethics Commission.