Tougher Nevada campaign money laws come into play

Three years ago, an independent watchdog group ranked Nevada's campaign finance transparency laws 45th in the nation - an "F" rating underscored by high-profile campaign finance hijinks in the past few months.

"The problem we have in Nevada," said Secretary of State Ross Miller, "is that we're perceived as being the Wild Wild West and have a reputation that anything goes."

Miller, who oversees the state's elections, finally found success changing those laws earlier this month after four years of trying. Gov. Brian Sandoval signed three bills that make a variety of changes in disclosure laws, from requiring candidates to file campaign contribution forms online, to requiring a disclosure on any ad $100 or more, so voters know when large, out-of-state advocacy groups are trying to influence Nevada politics.

"In previous sessions, it felt like pushing a rock up the hill," Miller said of the bills. "Every session, people forgot about the importance of the issue."

Votes were still split, but Miller said several controversies made it easier this time around for lawmakers to see holes in state election law.

Rory Reid, who failed a 2010 gubernatorial bid against Sandoval, was under investigation for skirting rules after his campaign created 90 smaller PACs and funneled donations through them from a large, umbrella PAC. Reid earlier this month paid an administrative fine of $25,000, but said he thought all along that the funding structure he used in his campaign was legal.

Another controversy cropped up after dozens of lawmakers received contributions from a company hoping to legalize Internet poker. Pokerstars is based overseas, and federal rules ban international contributions; one of the new campaign laws will clarify the ban in state law.

A criminal complaint filed Friday against a former Nevada Assemblyman brought the issue to the forefront again. The state attorney general alleges that Morse Arberry Jr. diverted more than $121,000 in campaign contributions to his personal checking account during the 2008 election cycle.

Miller says his office wants to "repair the perception" that political groups can get away with murder in Nevada.

Among the changes that will be in place by the 2012 election season:

Candidates will file all their reports electronically through the secretary of state's office. Existing law has candidates filing at different locations, including county clerk offices. The new system will create a database that voters can search by candidate, contributor, dollar amount and other data. It upgrades a system that required state staff to scan piles of handwritten documents into the system, and that only allowed voters to search reports by candidate.

Contribution and expense reports will be due four days before early voting begins so an increasing number of Nevadans who vote early can do more research before making their decision. The extra reports are in addition to the ones already due just before election day.

All ads, billboards and radio spots that cost more than $100 now must identify who paid for them. Anyone who spends more than $100 to influence an election must also register with the secretary of state and file expense reports.

Opponents say portions of the laws are too strict, and the extra paperwork and looming penalties could discourage average citizens from participating in elections.

"We want to be as transparent as possible," said Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, who vetted the laws as part of the Senate elections committee. "But to maintain the concept of a citizen Legislature, it can't be so cumbersome that a citizen can't participate."

He also worried that the electronic filing could oust candidates who don't have computer access.

Anne Bauer, a researcher with the National Institute on Money in State Politics, said some of the new laws are strong compared with those in other states - the $100 threshold for registering with the secretary of state is one of the lowest in the country.

But she added that the measures will make information more useable, and give voters a better picture of who is influencing the people on the ballot.

"Sunshine is incredibly important to democracy," Bauer said.


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