Lawmakers butcher ethics reform bills in favor of status quo

What happened to a package of ethics and campaign reforms in Carson City this year would have broken new ground in an Eli Roth torture-porn screenplay. The filmmaker does unspeakably horrible things to his characters — generally involving sharp objects and power tools — but lawmakers went even further in protecting their own interests, disemboweling, amputating and snuffing out bills that would have created a more transparent and better government.

Just like patrons of Mr. Roth’s twisted cinema, supporters of these bills were left shrieking and gagging in the aisles.

Senate Bill 49, introduced by Secretary of State Ross Miller, was dragged into a basement and torn to pieces. A provision to impose timely disclosure of campaign contributions and expenses, requiring all transactions greater than $1,000 to be reported online within 72 hours, was amended to increase the reporting threshold to $2,000, with the 72-hour clock on donations starting when a contribution was deposited, not received. Mr. Miller also sought to compel office holders to report their cash on hand, because unspent donations become invisible to the public under current disclosure requirements. Lawmakers gutted that section by exempting all campaign funds collected before Jan. 1, 2014, from future disclosure. Legislation to end the hiding of campaign money became legislation to specifically allow the hiding of funds.

SB49 also sought to prohibit elected officials from using campaign money on personal expenses. Democratic lawmakers amended the bill to allow candidates and office holders to buy clothes with donations. Can you say “slush fund”?

And then SB49, barely resembling its original form, was left to die. So much for mercy.

Two bills that would have imposed “cooling off” periods were carved up in the Senate meat locker. Assembly Bill 77 would have barred lawmakers from lobbying at the next regular legislative session after their exit from office, and Assembly Bill 438 would have extended a one-year cooling-off period for local elected or appointed officials and members of the Board of Regents to two years. Notably, it would have been years before the legislation did anything to limit influence peddling, because the bills exempted all current office holders. The bills passed the Assembly on near-unanimous votes. But Democratic senators wanted to preserve the revolving door not just for themselves, but for their successors. Those bills died as well.

Assembly Bill 407, which was poorly crafted from the start, actually deserved a terrible death. It was a response to Assemblyman Andrew Martin, D-Las Vegas, serving this year despite a court ruling that he didn’t live in his district and therefore was ineligible for office. The bill addressed the longtime problem of lawmakers lying about living among the people they represent by — get this — prohibiting judges from making such determinations in the four months before a general election. AB407 provided carpetbaggers with a form of immunity!

“In each of the measures designed to limit politicians and provide accountability and transparency to the public, the public lost from top to bottom. The politicians and paid lobbyists won,” said Martin Dean Dupalo, president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics, who testified on behalf of the reforms. “Lawmakers gave themselves political cover because each bill was killed by a committee chair, utilizing either a deadline for passage to disqualify a bill or simply not calling for a vote.”

It was a terrible session for ethics in government. Instead of shining a brighter light on campaign financing and limiting the ability of politicians to cash in on their offices, lawmakers preserved the shadows of the status quo. Mr. Miller said this month that he is giving “serious consideration” to bypassing the Legislature and pursuing a statewide referendum on ethics reform. We hope he follows through.

Until then, voters, be afraid. Be very afraid. Lawmakers will do anything to preserve the perks of incumbency.