Wednesday, April 8, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Political experts and academics agree that Nevada’s campaign disclosure laws are among the worst in the nation, allowing candidates to reveal comparatively little about the sources of their financing.
So what happens to efforts to put more transparency into the system?
Defenders of the current system emerge, worrying that added requirements to report contributions would create more work for candidates. More work would scare away good candidates, they argue.
“We have a hard enough time finding people to run for office,” Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, said at a recent meeting. “I worry that this requirement may seem onerous to some people.”
Take Assembly Bill 82, which would require candidates to file campaign and expense reports electronically. This would allow the public to search the forms easily.
The bill, sponsored by Secretary of State Ross Miller, would also require candidates to report campaign contributions of more than $1,000 within 48 hours, if the contribution was received close to an election. The idea is to alert the public about any large, last-minute infusions of cash. Nefarious contributors have been known to hand out large contributions late in a campaign deliberately to avoid disclosure before an election.
That latter idea was dead on arrival, members of the Assembly Committee on Elections, Procedures, Ethics and Constitutional Amendments said Tuesday.
As for the requirement that candidates file forms electronically, legislators agreed but pushed back the start date to 2011, when many of them will be forced out of office by term limits.
Assemblyman James Settlemeyer, R-Gardnerville, said Tuesday that some people don’t have access to computers.
“I don’t like to deter people from running,” he said. “That’s just my opinion, and why I’m voting no.”
Assemblyman Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas, said he agreed with making candidates file reports electronically, as long as the requirement begins in 2011. (Term limits would not force Conklin from office by then.)
“There aren’t many people left who don’t have a computer,” he said. “Setting this to start in 2011, when it’s an off-cycle year, gives people time to get used to it.”
Miller, the state’s chief election officer, noted that an annual UCLA study gives Nevada an F grade for the level of transparency in its campaign finance laws.
“Every organization that ranks disclosure puts Nevada at or near the bottom,” he said. “The No. 1 reason is we don’t mandate electronic filing.”
Nevada’s disclosure laws can be maddening.
Candidates don’t have to submit their final contribution and expense reports until after early voting starts. Candidates don’t have to disclose how much money they have on hand.
One person can set up shell corporations to funnel an unlimited amount of money to a candidate, nearly anonymously. Campaign forms are regularly filled out by hand, which are often hard to read, at times suspiciously so.
Miller said many of the forms are illegible. Asked if he thought that was done on purpose, Miller had a simple answer: Yes.
Miller said the electronic filing, which is now voluntary, would be easier for candidates.
Even so, “I would hope people running for office are committed enough to file disclosure forms electronically.”