Better disclosure: Campaign finance reforms long overdue

Nevada lawmakers are focused on party priorities and the state institutions they oversee. They’re far less concerned with the requirements of their offices and the laws that govern their own behavior.

The Legislature has long resisted reforms to campaign financial disclosures, preferring a status quo that keeps public information from voters far longer than necessary, invites noncompliance and encourages bad behavior. More rigorous standards would give voters the information they need to better understand the actions of their representatives — and ultimately hold them accountable.

Senate Bill 49, sponsored by Secretary of State Ross Miller, is one of the most important ethics and open-government proposals under consideration in Carson City. It would make the process of reporting campaign contributions and expenses more timely; clarify how much money sits in campaign accounts; crack down on the use of campaign donations for personal expenses; ban gifts to public officers; and give the secretary of state greater power to go after candidates who flout the rules.

It’s pathetic that part of Mr. Miller’s bill is even necessary. State law already prohibits candidates from spending campaign contributions on personal expenses. But that’s exactly what several Assembly members did two years ago, using tens of thousands of campaign dollars on living expenses and, initially, failing to report the expenses at all. SB 49 specifies exactly what can’t be considered a campaign expense: gym memberships, household items, residential utility bills, rent, concert tickets and funerals, among other things. Unfortunately, lawmakers clearly need the guidance.

Currently, candidates report months worth of contributions and expenses just weeks before elections. And they never have to declare how much cash they have on hand. SB 49 would mandate that all contributions and expenses of more than $1,000 be reported within 72 hours, and it would require candidates to disclose their account balances on every report. In the age of the Internet, there’s no reason candidates can’t report donations as they come in. And it has never made any sense that candidates can keep their war chests secret. Absent reporting, it’s as if they don’t exist.

The speedy reporting of donations, expenses and account balances would give donors some assurance in knowing their money is being used for campaign purposes. Recall that in 2011, former Assemblyman Morse Arberry pleaded guilty to fraudulent appropriation of property for putting more than $121,000 into his personal account — he never reported the donations, and he used the money for personal expenses.

The bill also gets rid of existing law that allows lawmakers, their immediate family and their staffs to accept gifts worth less than $100 from lobbyists — SB 49 stipulates they can’t accept any gifts at all. That would help eliminate the appearance of vote-buying.

SB 49 will be taken up by the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee on Thursday. It should be passed. Politicians answer to voters. Voters want their government to be open and ethical. But if we continue to hold our legislators to low standards, they’ll never try to exceed them.

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