Lawmakers on more transparency: Killing it softly with their words

When I hear lawmakers tell me they support a bill “in concept,” for some reason, I hear, “I hate this bill and will do everything I can to kill it.”

Perhaps something got lost in the translation. But when I asked three members of the state Senate Legislative, Operations and Elections whether they back Secretary of State Ross Miller's transparency bill, which contains provisions only a politicians or lobbyist could hate, their reactions after a hearing Tuesday were echoes.

“I support it in concept,” said Kelvin Atkinson.

“I support the concept,” said Chairwoman Patricia Spearman.

“I support the concept,” said James Settelmeyer.

Bipartisan support for the concept! I’m sure it will pass.

I could make an unfair and inappropriate analogy here, but I will refrain.

Nevertheless, the equivocation, I think, is not out of thoughtfulness and deliberation but out of disdain for a measure that would force them to reveal their contributions regularly, report what cash they have on hand and not use campaign money for personal use – radical concepts, all.

And they know what I fear as I write this: Too few people really care about this issue, which actually could dramatically change how politicians collect money and later behave but has no easy resonance for average folks who care about keeping their jobs from being lost, their houses from being taken and their children from not graduating.

Hey, what about campaign finance reform, folks? Say what?

But, as I always say, if you are going to be obsessed with something, make sure it’s something only you (and a few others, maybe) are interested in. So I will continue to hector the Gang of 63 about reforming themselves, refusing to accept their lame excuses and naming names of those who oppose common sense reforms.

Besides Miller, the only supporters at Tuesday’s hearing were the usual, do-gooder suspects: Academics, ethics experts, progressives and worst of all, media folks. Granted, the only foes on the record generally were fringe types who claimed this was some kind of infringement of free speech, a taking of liberty by forcing politicians to not be able to hoard money for months without disclosure and to limit what they can use their campaign money to buy. Yes, one even wailed about what Jefferson would have said about such travesties.

But beyond the theater of the absurd from the audience and the kabuki from the committee members was Miller’s testimony about Nevada’s “atrocious” grades from transparency groups.

Miller also pointed out that transparency will not cost a lot and is “not a partisan issue.” Indeed, he is correct: Both parties are against what he is trying to do, even though they couch it in an Orwellian construction of conceptual support.

I am going to keep a close eye on this bill for the rest of the session. Spearman tells me she has not heard from leadership on the measure and plans to move it within a couple of weeks or so.

Her only concern, she said, is that perhaps lower offices – she mentioned school board – should be exempt. Debatable, but fair point.

The rest of the panel:

Atkinson says “some of the things we need to correct,” arguing all donations, not just those of more than $1,000, should be subject to the 72-hour reporting rule. That sounded like a poison pill to me, but he insists not, saying the number of smaller contributions is relatively minor.

Settelmeyer, who represents a rural district, said it takes him 90 minutes to get to his bank and that the clock should start ticking after the check is deposited, not received. That sounds ludicrous, but he seemed serious that it is a real problem.

Settelmeyer also mentioned other problems not covered in the bill, such as what I would call the new-best-friend syndrome, where “surprise, surprise, after you win, you get post-dated checks from people who supported me all along,” he said, wryly.

Maybe. But let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the long overdue reforms.

(There are plenty of other holes in Nevada’s porous system, including how expenses can be aggregated into a credit card transaction, but Miller couldn’t tackle everything in one bill. It’s bad enough that he is limiting their ability to take gifts from lobbyists – why should that be allowed? – but the measure would be utterly hopeless (if it isn’t already) if he took away their precious capital perks.)

Mark Manendo said he supports the bill “for the most part,” another way of saying he backs it in concept, right? And Barbara Cegavske was the most honest, saying, “I think there’s some work to do.” She lamented the costs of having an accountant and said – I love this – that she has ”never had a constituent ask me about my campaign reporting.”

And that statement, folks, is why this bill will die, as all others like it have done, unless the Gang of 63 can be shamed into doing the right thing.