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State gets better grade on campaign finances

FRANKFORT — Kentucky slightly improved its grade in campaign finance transparency but continued to fall behind other states after failing for a third straight year to pass legislation aimed at heightening disclosure.

The national Campaign Disclosure Project's Grading State Disclosure report boosted Kentucky's grade for the state's campaign finance transparency to a B-, up from last year's C+ overall grade.

But the project — a collaboration by the California Voter Foundation, the Center for Governmental Studies and the UCLA School of Law — ranked Kentucky 21st in the country. That's down one place from last year and a slide of 11 spots from 2004 as other states have improved their election laws that govern donations while Kentucky has stood pat.

But the B- is Kentucky's best grade yet from the project. The improvement stemmed mostly from the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance's redesigned Web site, www.kref.ky.gov, which is easier for citizens to navigate and search, the report said.

"It looks like if the registry hadn't done its effort to improve its site, we would have dropped into the second half, somewhere between 25th and 29th," said Secretary of State Trey Grayson, whose office oversees elections. "But it's strong evidence that we need to reform our laws."

Kentucky's strongest point was its disclosure requirements, which mandate that state and local candidates for public office must report all donations of $100 or more and itemize all expenses greater than $25. On that point, Kentucky got a B+ and a national rank of 11.

But the disclosure project gave Kentucky a failing grade for its electronic filing program, or lack thereof.

The Kentucky General Assembly failed to pass a bill last year sponsored by state Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, that would have required candidates who raise more than $25,000 in an election to file their campaign finance reports electronically directly to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

Electronic filing allows the reports to show up almost immediately on the registry's Web site and wouldn't require staff members to manually input the information.

The legislation also would have added new reporting deadlines so that candidates would have to disclose their fund-raising two months before the general election. Currently, statewide and legislative candidates don't have to reveal the donations they get between June and early October until a month before the November election.

In the 2007 and 2008 General Assembly sessions the bill overwhelmingly passed the Senate but stalled in the House.

Both Grayson and Thayer said they hoped Gov. Steve Beshear would urge passage of the campaign finance disclosure bill during the 2009 General Assembly session.

"There's a transparency movement in Frankfort," Grayson said. "We ought to join together and unite behind this non-partisan initiative, too."

Beshear's spokeswoman, Jill Midkiff, said the governor plans to work "with legislators on both sides of the aisle on legislation that enhances accountability." She wouldn't comment on specific legislation until it's been filed.

Thayer said he will file an early draft of the bill this fall and would ask Beshear to lobby for it.

"I plan to seek the governor's support for this and not just get a tip of the hat, 'Yes we support Sen. Thayer's bill.' I want them to work this bill," he said.

Thayer also said a change in the House Democratic leadership might improve the bill's chance of passage. He said he and other Senate Republicans have struggled to work with House Speaker Jody Richards, who is being challenged for the speakership by Rep. Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg.

"I'm kind of tired of seeing good Senate bills die down in the House of Representatives — good bills like campaign finance disclosure," Thayer said.

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