Timely public disclosure of campaign contributions and political spending is poised to get a big boost in Nebraska.
Under a bill making its way through the Legislature, the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission would receive the funds needed to create and maintain an electronic filing system for handling campaign finance reports.
As a result, the state would have a greater ability to process — and promptly make public — information on who’s given how much money to political candidates and for ballot issues, and how those campaigns spend the donations.
This much-needed step forward that Legislative Bill 79 would provide is long overdue. The Accountability and Disclosure Commission has lacked the funding to provide this important service.
Under the bill, the commission would require campaign finance filings to be done electronically and then make those reports available to the public via its website “as soon as practicable.”
This change would provide more openness and accountability to Nebraska’s election system, better enabling citizens to make judgments during election season about the conduct and agendas of candidates and those who back them.
State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln explained the new reporting system during legislative debate, saying the system would provide “more accurate and quicker access to information for the public.” That is a crucial public need, he said, given that “accountability begets good government.”
There’s some irony involved. The $630,000 cost of establishing and maintaining the electronic filing system would come from “fair fight” money the state collected through campaign fines and citizen contributions. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court said such funds — public money to supplement a candidate if the opponent spent above a certain threshold — were unconstitutional because limitations on campaign spending stifle political speech.
That ruling led the Nebraska Supreme Court the following year to rule Nebraska’s Campaign Finance Limitation Act, passed in 1992, unconstitutional.
The courts, then, have made clear that the state should stay clear of interfering with political speech. But this doesn’t mean that all regulation of elections has been removed. On the contrary, ensuring the integrity of elections is a basic responsibility of government.
With this electronic filing system in place, Nebraska would realize an important new opportunity to bolster citizens’ ability to understand who the candidates are, what agenda they’re promoting and who supports them — vital information for a well-functioning democracy.