Kentucky lawmakers are poised to give politicians the OK to raise more money and, once elected, to award contracts without competitive bidding via “public-private partnerships.” Shouldn’t voters and taxpayers get something too?
As Sunshine Week dawns — motto: Open government is good government — the legislature should seize these opportunities to increase transparency, accountability and ethics in government:
▪ The House has unanimously voted to repair a big hole that the legislature blew in the Open Records Act (perhaps unintentionally) in 2012. House Bill 80 sponsored by Rep. Chris Harris, D-Pikeville, makes clear that private companies hired by government bodies to run public utilities must once again comply with disclosure requirements that apply to governments. Privatization should not cost citizens their right to know how their money is being spent. The Senate should approve HB 80.
▪ The dark money flooding Kentucky elections from anonymous donors via shadowy independent groups was cited as a reason for the House decision to raise limits on reported political contributions. HB 147 doubles limits on contributions to candidates from $1,000 to $2,000 per election and to political parties and legislative caucus committees from $2,500 a year to $5,000. Also, corporations, banned from giving to candidates or parties in Kentucky, could donate to building funds for state party headquarters.
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More money in politics is nothing to cheer, but states have the power to require disclosure of contributors whom the Internal Revenue Service lets remain secret. Kentucky should require groups that are electioneering — through ads, mail, phone calls, whatever — to report the sources of their money, just as candidates and campaign committees must, by enacting HB 548, sponsored by Rep. James Kay, D-Versailles.
Another needed change in campaign-finance laws is more frequent reporting. Gov. Matt Bevin, who loaned $1.57 million to his campaign, brought in more than $115,000 in the 60 days after he was elected. But there’s no requirement for him to report contributors again until November.
▪ Hundreds of millions of tax dollars flow through Kentucky’s 15 area development districts. HB 438 tightens accountability and transparency requirements in response to findings of waste, conflicts of interest and $2.8 million in questionable spending by the Bluegrass ADD based in Lexington. The sponsor, Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, says, “We need a brighter spotlight, so we can praise what they are doing well and immediately begin fixing problems.” Amen. HB 438 cleared committee last week and needs approval of House and Senate.
Other bills need stronger accountability and transparency provisions.
▪ Senate Bill 2, awaiting House action, makes needed reforms in the state’s struggling public-pension systems, but does not go far enough. Lawmakers should add recommendations from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce: Publicly reporting individual pension payments, including those to elected officials. Ban contributions, gifts or job offers from those seeking to provide investment services to the pension systems to lawmakers, the governor, other constitutional officers or executive cabinet members, their spouses and children.
▪ Likewise, the Senate should insist on such a safeguard in the House-passed public-private partnership bill. Employees and officials of companies seeking government contracts under HB 309 should be banned from making contributions, gifts or job offers to the officials (elected and non-elected) who must approve such deals or their spouses and children.
Finally, money is tight but gutting already-underfunded watchdog agencies such as the Registry of Election Finance and Executive Branch Ethics Commission, as Bevin’s budget proposes, just invites abuse of taxpayers and breaches of the public trust.