AP: Brownback pushes for cuts in ethics commission budget
TOPEKA (AP) — The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission wouldn't be able to do random, in-depth audits of political candidates or groups with a 9.3 percent budget cut proposed by Gov. Sam Brownback, the agency's executive director said Friday.
The commission has held one of its two auditing jobs open for more than a year, anticipating its budget could decrease, Executive Director Carol Williams said. Brownback's recommendations would prevent the agency from filling the job, leaving it with seven full-time and two part-time staffers.
Brownback's proposal comes with the commission hamstrung in asking legislators to allow it to increase its regulatory fees, thanks to a legal opinion last year from Attorney General Derek Schmidt. Also, the chairman of the Kansas House Elections Committee, an ally of the conservative Republican governor, has promised to examine the commission's operations with an eye toward sweeping changes.
Under Brownback's spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1, the commission's budget would decline to about $632,000 from the nearly $697,000 allocated under the current budget, a decrease of about $65,000. The commission anticipated its spending would drop because no state elections typically are scheduled in odd-numbered years, but estimated it still needed almost $675,000 to continue current operations.
"We're trying to do the things that we can and make the budget balance," Brownback told reporters Friday. "It's just a tough budget environment."
The nine-member commission enforces lobbying, campaign finance and conflict of interest laws. Members are appointed by the governor, legislative leaders, attorney general, secretary of state and state Supreme Court chief justice. About 61 percent of its budget is financed with tax dollars and the rest, with fees paid by lobbyists, candidates, political party groups and political action committees.
Williams said the commission's staff reviews every campaign finance report for potential errors or missing information and, after those examinations, launches a smaller number of random, in-depth audits, some of which can take months. In the fiscal year ending June 2012, it initiated 21 such audits.
The in-depth audits confirm for the commission's staff that both individual campaign finance reports and the statistics it compiles are accurate, Williams said. The audits also reveal potential problems in how laws have been drafted or how the commission has explained them to candidates and political groups, she said.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, decried the proposed budget decrease, saying the commission's small budget and staff already limit its enforcement abilities.
"If anything, we need to be giving the ethics commission more resources and more tools to use," Davis said.
In 2011, Brownback proposed increases in fees for lobbyists and political action committees so the state could spend fewer tax dollars on the commission's operations. The commission had its own, broader proposal to raise an additional $251,000 a year, almost doubling fee revenues. Neither plan passed.
In September, Schmidt issued a non-binding legal opinion saying if fees for lobbyists exceed what's necessary to cover the costs of regulating them, it is violating their free speech rights. Williams said if the state follows the opinion, future fee increases will be limited.
House Elections Commission Chairman Scott Schwab, a conservative Olathe Republican who sought the legal opinion, said Brownback's budget represents a placeholder recommendation while lawmakers examine the commission's operations and consider changes. Some Republicans contend the commission has been tougher on GOP conservatives than moderates or Democrats in enforcing ethics and campaign finance laws, something Williams and its members dispute.
Earlier this month, Schwab publicly suggested term limits for ethics commission members or turning its enforcement duties over to the attorney general and county prosecutors. He's backed off the second proposal but said Friday "there are a lot of ideas swirling around."
It's not clear how much support Schwab has for pursuing such issues because other GOP leaders have said little about them, but he said, "Something's going to change."