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OPINION: State lawmakers ensure campaigns are less transparent

Jon Ralston
Jon Ralston

Here at The Indy, we pride ourselves on transparency.

We disclose all of our donors, and we even disclose when donors, large or small, appear in news stories. We can stand the scrutiny; indeed, we welcome it.

If only elected officials, candidates and political action committees lived by the same rules. But not only do they not in Nevada, state lawmakers have made it more difficult for average voters to know who is funding campaigns, especially in the critical weeks leading up to the elections.

That allows special interests and PACs to funnel hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — into Nevada campaigns for statewide and local offices without any disclosure until well after the votes have been counted. It’s not technically dark money, but voters are left in the dark for too long — that is, too long for it to matter in the election, which is just how many candidates AND many outside groups like it.

State law requires candidates and PACs to report at quarterly intervals: April 15 and then not again until July 15, which is more than a month after the primary election. For the general election, it’s Oct. 15 and then Jan. 15.

Our Riley Snyder and Tabitha Mueller reported on some of this nonsense late last month and how some PACs are exploiting this gaping loophole to attack candidates under the cover of darkness enabled by the Legislature. As they wrote:

A Nevada Independent analysis found that at least 20 new PACs and political nonprofits were registered with the Nevada Secretary of State’s office between April 1 and May 15 — slotting nicely into the loophole between campaign finance reporting deadlines and the June 11 primary election.

This is outrageous, of course, and I assure you the foxy politicians who did this knew what they were doing when they made it worse at the Carson City chicken coop seven years ago. This is an incumbent-protection plan, even if it doesn’t always work that way.

And what they count on is that only nosy media members really care, that their voters don’t give a whit about campaign finance laws. That is, they know they can get away with it.

At the risk of whistling in the dark — this seems like a career feature not a bug — let me give you two egregious examples from the primary going on right now that show why you should care:

— In the Democratic primary for state Sen. Dina Neal’s seat, ugly mailers have come into the district raising the specter of an FBI probe and even comparing her to Donald Trump. The mailers are attributed to a PAC called “North Valley,” which was set up in April and has yet to file a contribution report. It is registered to North Las Vegas Councilman Isaac Barron, who dodged Mueller several times as she tried to find out information about the mailers.

Barron’s turtle act is craven enough, but we don’t even know if he is a patsy fronting for moneyed interests who want Neal out of office. (My guess is yes, for what it’s worth.)

Neal has tangled with North Las Vegas officials in the Legislature, and this is clearly retribution. But Barron and his mystery associates can hide their funding sources, if not their motivations until after the balloting.

Don’t North Las Vegas residents and Neal’s constituents have a right to know who is funding these scurrilous mailers? By the way, Neal was the only legislator in 2017 to vote against the blackout bill that allows those funding the attacks against her to be kept secret now. I am sure that is small consolation.

— In the contest for Las Vegas mayor, an attack piece on Councilman Cedric Crear appeared in mailboxes that was paid for by “Voters for Trusted Leadership.” The innocuous names they choose for these PACs! The mailer claims Crear is not to be — wait for it — trusted.

This PAC was set up about a month ago by consultant Lisa Mayo-DeRiso and a local Realtor. When I asked her who was funding it, she said only that there were “a lot of donors.” By coincidence, Mayo-DeRiso has sent out news releases on behalf of the controversial Badlands development, whose owner Crear has called a “bully.”

Don’t Las Vegas voters have a right to know who is forking over a lot of money for these hit pieces? Doesn’t Crear?

These are but two examples of hidden money facilitating attacks on candidates in the eleventh hour of an election — and I am sure it is going on in other key races, too. Most voters don’t pay much attention to who is funding the pieces piling up in their mailboxes these days. But shouldn’t they be armed with this information, whether or not they find it dispositive?

That shouldn’t even be the metric — if voters would care. The so-called capital leaders should insist on full transparency in campaign finance instead of trying to give themselves yet another advantage. But if you are governed by self-interest, you won’t care nearly as much about those you govern.

I worry much less about the tsunami of money in politics as much as I do about the amount of undisclosed money in politics. It occurs all the time in national races with the proliferation of nonprofits that don’t have to disclose donors.

Nevada could be a model for the nation by passing real-time campaign finance reporting. Then-Secretary of State Ross Miller tried more than a decade ago but the Gang of 63 would have none of it. Literally, none of it.

Maybe the next Legislature will be different. Even though experience tells me differently, that lawmakers will continue to count on voter apathy, keep hope alive for ’25.

Jon Ralston is the CEO/Editor of The Nevada Independent.


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