Require disclosure

Given how most state lawmakers say they want more transparency in government and politics, you would think they also support more transparency in campaign spending. But no.

For the past eight years, the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission has recommended that all individuals or groups be required to disclose how much they spend on state elections and where they get their money. Yet each year the reform has been blocked by some of the same lawmakers who claim to value openness.

This year they need to live up to their rhetoric and approve the reform.

The concern is that independent groups or individuals are spending big bucks trying to influence elections. But voters often don’t have a clue about the groups and how much they are spending.

For example, an Iowa-based group called American Future Fund spent an estimated $1 million on advertising to defeat former Kansas Attorney General Steve Six in November’s election. The spending total is a guess, because the group isn’t required to report it. And no one knows who is behind the group, because it doesn’t have to report where it gets its money.

Why did an Iowa group care who was Kansas’ attorney general? Did its funding come from Kansas, and was it merely laundered through the group? Was the person or company paying for the ads under investigation by the Attorney General’s Office? Voters should have been able to find answers to these questions.

Such groups avoid disclosure rules because their advertisements or mailers don’t specifically say to vote for or against a candidate. But as Carol Williams, executive director of the ethics commission, noted, the purpose of the advertising is clear: to influence voting.

In contrast, candidates or organizations that expressly advocate that people vote for or against a candidate are require to report how much they spend and their sources of funding.

The commission thinks that both kinds of spending should be treated the same so that “the citizens of Kansas have the opportunity to understand where the money is coming from that is trying to influence them in their voting,” Williams told the Lawrence Journal-World.

So why do some lawmakers not want such disclosures? It’s mostly because they don’t want to upset groups spending the money, such as Americans for Prosperity-Kansas.

Disclosure wouldn’t prevent these groups from supporting lawmakers and trying to influence elections. They would just have to report it, as everyone else does.

And contrary to the claims of some lawmakers, such requirements pass constitutional muster. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in two cases last year, including the Citizens United decision, that states can require spending disclosures.

Lawmakers say they believe in transparency. It’s time they prove it.