A bill that would eliminate party leadership political action committees in the Legislature passed the Senate on Thursday.
Senate and House Democrats each have a PAC that was grandfathered in before the state passed a law in 1990 that has barred House Republicans from forming their own. Senate Republicans have one, but it is controlled by ousted moderates and not the current leadership.
Senate Bill 274 passed 31-6. If it becomes law, it will eliminate the three existing PACs.
Republicans contend that it is unfair for Democrats to raise money while House Republicans cannot. Additionally, they have accused leadership PACs of undermining the electoral process.
Democrats accuse the majority party of trying to silence the opposition, and say the bill does not accomplish real campaign finance reform.
“It’s not going to do anything to diminish the influence of money in the political process,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said.
Hensley offered what he called “The Big Enchilada” amendment that would have required independent expenditure groups to disclose donors.
“They’re shadow organizations. They lurk in the shadows and you don’t have any idea of who they are or where their donors come from,” Hensley said.
The amendment was voted down.
“Because the Republican majority wants to protect those people, because those are the people that back their campaigns,” Hensley said.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, dismissed Hensley’s criticism.
“The difference there is it’s a private entity run by private individuals compared to an entity that is run by an elected official. And we believe that we need more transparency in a PAC that is run by an elected official,” Wagle said.
“The Supreme Court has already ruled that the private PACs are protected by free speech,” Wagle said.
She also accused Hensley of supporting leadership PACs for cynical reasons.
“He became the minority leader of the Senate in ’96,” Wagle said. “When you’re recruiting candidates to run for office, and that’s how you fund them, that’s how you get elected to leadership.”
As the Senate’s top Democrat, Hensley chairs the PAC, but he noted that he did not create it. He said the party uses it to combat attacks from rightwing political groups.
Republicans said that Democrats should not be able to raise money during the session through grandfathered PACs, while Republicans cannot.
“It’s just about fairness,” Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said Wednesday.
Hensley said he would support legislation that barred all political action committees from fundraising during the session, but he dismissed the notion that Republicans had been disadvantaged. “There is no level playing field in Kansas politics,” he said, “because they have all of these other entities that contribute to their campaigns either directly or indirectly.”
A separate bill, which originated in the House last year and has yet to go to the Senate floor, would enable the four party committees to raise funds during the session. Wagle said the Senate would carefully consider that bill.
Another issue is the status of Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s Prairie Fire PAC. Democrats contend that this PAC should be eliminated along with the Legislature’s leadership PAC. A bill that would eliminate it passed the Senate last year, but has been stuck in conference with the House.
Wagle said it was unnecessary to add the amendment to this bill when the matter is still in conference.