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August 3, 2015

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jon ralston:

Counting on public apathy to kill campaign reform

Bipartisanship has arrived in the capital, and it is ugly to behold.

Once again, lawmakers are conspiring in their less-than-clever way to entomb reasonable campaign reform measures because they would create the horrifying result of more transparency.

They are, as usual, counting on what many legislators before them have relied on: that no one cares about campaign finance reform. And, alas, they may be right.

“They just don’t get it,” said an obviously frustrated Secretary of State Ross Miller, who has proposed electronic filing of campaign contributions and a deadline for reports to be filed before early voting.

“The public deserves to know who is financing the campaigns of their elected officials,” he said. “It’s beyond aggravating. Every election cycle there’s an outcry from the public and the media demanding stiffer election law penalties; campaign finance transparency; and, disclosures from shadowy third party groups. But, every legislative cycle they seem to forget that. Whether you compare it to the movie ‘Groundhog Day’ or the myth of Sisyphus, it’s the same old story from some of our incumbents.”

Miller couldn’t be more right. Every year Nevada is lambasted by transparency groups for its pathetically weak laws that allow candidates to go months without reporting contributions. The fact that Nevada does not have electronic filing is an abomination — and I don’t think Miller goes far enough because there is no good reason why contributions should not be reported almost immediately on the Internet.

No good reason, that is, except it might tarnish elected officials who take money in proximity to votes or who don’t want it known right away that they took large sums from certain donors.

Miller was so sensitive to their sensitivities that he stripped three provisions from his major campaign reform bills and put them into one measure. Those are: mandating electronic fling, making the secretary of state’s office the central repository for reports and adding that report before early voting.

And even that is too much for lawmakers, who have attached a two-year cooling-off period to the measure as a potential poison pill. The stripped-down bill barely passed an Assembly committee last week, 8-7.

How obvious is it?

One vignette says it all: On the same day I revealed that Assemblyman William Horne had taken a two-day trip to London paid for by

PokerStars — a junket he did not report because he says a legislative lawyer said he was not required to — he lamented in the hearing on the reform bill that a cooling-off period would limit his ability to make money after his elected career. Indeed, it is outrageous that the state might bar an elected official from immediately trading on his or her relationships as so many folks have, including ex-Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, the PokerStars lobbyist who facilitated Horne’s London sojourn.

Horne surely sees Perkins and others cashing in by trading their elected jobs for lobbying contracts and does not want to be barred from doing the same. He is not alone and that provision could kill the bill.

Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, to his credit, gets it and contradicted Horne and others who want to scuttle the cooling-off period.

“It’s not a matter of whether people are doing anything wrong, I can’t point to anything specifically; I think it is a matter of perception,” Oceguera said, as reported by the Nevada News Bureau. “And this goes in line with what many other states are doing and what the federal law does as well, and I think we need to be accountable to the public.”

Miller’s ideas certainly don’t go all the way, but that is just the point. Despite scaling back what he wants, the secretary of state is running into incumbents who are nakedly displaying what they care about most: self-perpetuation.

The disclosure deadlines in this state are laughable. A candidate reports contributions in January, then doesn’t have to again for half a year. And the next dates are so close to the elections that it is too late for the media or public to absorb — Miller’s early voting deadline would help.

What possible reason could there be for craven politicians to oppose more reporting or an electronic database, easily searchable by inquisitive reporters and diligent voters? The answer is in the question.

Folks, they count on you not caring about this issue because as long as you don’t, they can take contributions without timely disclosure, ensure they can trade their elective tenure for lobbying riches and continue to blur the lines between public service and private gain.

If it continues, if Miller becomes yet another secretary of state to be foiled by bipartisan incumbent-protectionism, it will be your apathy that allows them to once again get away with it.

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