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April 23, 2014

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Assembly Republicans seek to strengthen campaign finance transparency

Assembly Republicans released proposals today to overhaul the state’s campaign finance program in an effort to increase transparency and public trust in the state’s political system.

Assemblyman Pat Hickey, R-Reno, said that in 2010, $100 million was spent on elections in Nevada, or about $147,000 per voter who participated in the general election. (Roughly half of that came in the race against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle.)

“We are spending too much time, raising too much money,” Hickey said. Lawmakers are “spending too little capital dealing with problems Nevadans elected us to solve.”

He called for a “serious discussion” about the campaign finance laws in the state at the beginning of the 2013 Legislative Session.

That includes moving the primary election closer to November and possibly lowering the $5,000 limit an entity can contribute to a campaign.

“What we’re really talking about is the 800 pound gorilla in the room,” said Assemblyman Randy Kirner, R-Reno. “Where’s the money, who’s getting it and what influence do they expect to get from the money?”

State lawmakers could only affect campaign finance rules that govern state officers, including constitutional officers such as the governor to candidates for the Assembly and Senate.

Among the proposals:

• Real time contribution reporting. Currently, campaigns report contributions and expenditures sporadically. Hickey said he would voluntarily report contributions he received between now and November within 48 hours to media outlets.

• Requiring candidates to report ending fund balances on their reports. The reports now do not show how much cash candidates have from previous races.

• Reporting trips and gifts from lobbyists and donors when the Legislature is not in session.

• Enhanced auditing of campaign finance laws by the Secretary of State’s office or a new bipartisan commission.

• Creating a “cooling off period” before lawmakers can lobby the Legislature. Currently, lawmakers can retire and lobby immediately after they leave office.

Hickey also said the state should examine, and possibly lower, the threshold an individual entity can contribute to a campaign. Currently, entities can contribute $5,000 for a candidate’s primary and $5,000 for a general election. Large companies routinely contribute through various LLCs to circumvent the law.

The Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court case ruled that donations are a protected form of speech, and threw out federal campaign contribution limits, opening the way for third party “super PACs.” Nevada recently joined Montana, and 21 other states in asking that the U.S. Supreme Court uphold state campaign contributions limits.

Hickey also said he wanted to look at moving back the June primary. This year, early voting begins Saturday for the June 12 primary election.

Hickey said the long campaign season leads to a more partisan atmosphere between lawmakers and a burnt-out public.

“With a long and heated campaign season, we’re wearing the public out,” he said.

The Legislature passed bills in 2011 that increased transparency in the state’s campaign finance laws, including requiring reports to be filed electronically. Previously, the reports would often come in handwritten and unsearchable.

But another bill, to require gifts and trips to be reported when the Legislature is not in session, died in the Assembly after passing unanimously in the state Senate. Hickey said he believed the bill was killed by Assembly Democratic leadership.

Hickey said he believed the bills would get bipartisan support.

Assembly Majority Leader Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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