Watered down: 'Reforms' that preserve campaign status quo

The rewriting of Senate Bill 49 is a valuable reminder of just how far politicians will go to limit public disclosure of their campaign finances and preserve the perks of incumbency. In fact, Nevada lawmakers amended Secretary of State Ross Miller’s campaign reforms to specifically authorize some of bad behaviors the reforms aimed to outlaw.

As introduced, Mr. Miller’s bill was among the most important ethics and open government proposals in Carson City. Among its many goals: speeding the process of reporting campaign contributions and expenses; forcing candidates to disclose the balances of their campaign accounts; and ending the use of campaign funds for personal expenses. Lawmakers watered down all three of those provisions.

Mr. Miller wanted more timely reporting of campaign donations and expenses, a simple data entry process through his office’s website. Rather than force voters to wait months for public information that often is released just weeks before elections, Mr. Miller proposed that all contributions and expenses greater than $1,000 be reported within 72 hours. Lawmakers responded by increasing the reporting threshold to $2,000 per donation or expense, and starting the 72-hour clock once a contribution is deposited, as opposed to when it was received. This will allow candidates to hold onto big donations for weeks or months before reporting them — exactly the practice Mr. Miller wants stopped.

The size of public officials’ war chests is another aspect of campaign finance kept from the public. Some politicians, who’ve been in office for more than a decade, are sitting on piles of money, but they don’t have to report it. Donors can never be too sure whether some candidates actually need more money to win election, or whether those candidates just want more tribute they can pass along to party pals in exchange for future considerations. If a donation isn’t spent, the money essentially becomes invisible. Senators dealt with this burden by amending SB 49 to declare the balance of any campaign account opened before Jan. 1, 2014, be deemed zero. All politicians will start from scratch in eight months — the hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting in existing accounts notwithstanding. So much for shining a light on that dough.

But the most egregious amendment was debated last week by the state Senate. Mr. Miller sought to clarify existing state law that prohibits candidates from spending campaign dollars on personal expenses, a statute long abused by Nevada office holders. SB 49 spelled out the things candidates couldn’t buy with donations: gym memberships, funerals, concert tickets and clothes (campaign T-shirts, hats and other items were exempted). Yet Senate Democrats amended that provision to allow candidates and sitting office holders to buy clothes for themselves with campaign funds.

Sen. Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, suggested that without the amendment, some candidates would win election but be unable to serve. Someone doesn’t want to give up his shopping sprees. It is beyond stupid to suggest that in this age of Internet, outlet and discount shopping, anyone who aspires to public office can’t afford to purchase appropriate attire. This amendment will allow all candidates and office holders to continue to use campaign accounts, intended to support election and political activity, as personal slush funds.

The amended SB 49 passed the Senate last week, 13-8, on a largely party-line vote, with eight of 10 Republicans opposed and all Democrats in favor. Some provisions of the original bill remain intact, including a ban on gifts from lobbyists to candidates, office holders, their immediate family and their staffs. What remains of the bill, however, resembles a mutated abomination from “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” This is not what transparent, ethical government looks like. This is more of the cynical status quo.