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Kentucky officials seek changes in campaign-finance laws

October 25, 2018

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Out of more than 1,500 Kentucky political candidates who are required to file public financial-disclosure reports this year, all but 106 have done so on paper, overwhelming the Registry of Election Finance’s 12 staff members who enter the data into a computer system so the public can view it.

The ensuing backlog means spending information for candidates in competitive legislative elections is often shielded from the public. In some cases, the information isn’t posted online until after the election.

“This has been a disaster election cycle for transparency,” said Republican state Sen. Damon Thayer.

Registry of Election Finance chairman Craig Dilger pleaded with lawmakers Wednesday to pass a law next year requiring all candidates to file their campaign-finance reports electronically, something most states already do. Candidates for statewide constitutional offices are required to file their campaign-spending reports electronically. But those races are held in odd-numbered years. In this midterm election, more than 100 state legislative seats are on the ballot, along with hundreds of other county, city and judicial posts. Every candidate who raises more than $3,000 must file multiple reports with the registry.

“It becomes absolutely physically impossible to provide the information to the public or an opponent or to the media, for that matter, in a timely fashion,” Dilger said.

Part of the problem has been the registry’s outdated computer systems. Currently, candidates who file electronically must do so through a third-party vendor that charges them a fee. But Dilger noted state lawmakers earlier this year approved funding for a new computer system that should be up and running by the 2020 election cycle. He said under the new system, candidates could file their campaign-finance reports for free. They could even file from their smartphones. Plus, he said the system would automatically detect some incorrect information and make the candidate correct it before filing.

Thayer has been in the Senate for 15 years and is the majority floor leader. He said 2018 will be the last election cycle where candidates for state and local offices are not required to file reports electronically, and vowed to sponsor the legislation himself when lawmakers return to Frankfort in 2019 for the legislative session.

“What a tremendous and unfair disadvantage to the candidate who does the right thing, and yet the candidate who ignores the law or games the current system by filing at the last minute with a paper copy knowing their donors and their expense are not going to be public for perhaps weeks at a time,” he said. “It’s an affront to our republic.”

Thayer also bemoaned the lack of immediate consequences for candidates who don’t file their reports. Often, registry staff members don’t resolve violations until months after the election. Democratic state Rep. Derrick Graham said lawmakers should look at increasing funding for the registry to hire more people. But lawmakers passed a two-year state spending plan earlier this year. They aren’t scheduled to vote on a budget again until 2020.

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