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Nebraska state Sen. Sue Crawford continues push for more campaign ad transparency
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Nebraska state Sen. Sue Crawford continues push for more campaign ad transparency

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As the 2018 election cycle approaches, saturating airwaves and stuffing mailboxes with campaign advertisements, a Nebraska state senator is pushing for greater transparency and accountability for candidate-specific materials.

Introduced by Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue, LB839 reworks a bill she introduced last year requiring additional reporting by individuals and organizations buying ads and sending mailers that name specific candidates.

It would require any person who buys more than $250 of campaign commercials, flyers or other “electioneering communication” materials in the 60 days leading up to an election to report to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.

Details regarding who paid for the advertisement or mailer, how much was paid, how it was distributed and the subject targeted by it would be included in the report.

“I think it’s an important issue for us to continue to refine and examine and push,” Crawford said.

Last year, the Bellevue senator introduced a similar measure that would have required organizations purchasing campaign materials to disclose the “name, address, occupation, employer, and principal place of business of each person who contributed.”

That drew opposition from organizations such as Americans for Prosperity, who said the bill would have chilled the free speech of Nebraskans who wished to donate to political causes without fear of reprisal. The bill did not advance out of committee.

But Crawford took that debate from the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee and revised the bill, removing the requirements for organizations to report details about their donors.

“The bill attempts to address key concerns the committee members raised,” she said, “So it’s my hope they will recognize that and recognize this as an important issue in terms of making sure our election laws are ones that encourage transparency and fair elections.”

The call to pull back the curtain a little further on campaign spending began after three incumbent state senators were targeted by advertising campaigns originating beyond Nebraska’s borders in 2016.

Former state Sens. Les Seiler of Hastings, Al Davis of Hyannis and Jerry Johnson of Wahoo said so-called “dark money” campaign materials lied about their voting records and distorted their activities within the Legislature.

For example, one ad stated Seiler had not been present for 75 percent of the hearings for the Judiciary Committee, the committee he chaired, when in fact he had missed only one meeting.

Jack Gould of Common Cause Nebraska said ads targeting Republican senators who had voted to override vetoes cast by Gov. Pete Ricketts were just the latest examples of why more transparency is necessary in the state’s campaign spending.

“I think most of the public is sick and tired of the attack ads and the lies,” Gould said. “We pride ourselves on being a democracy, but if we allow people to run money through nonprofits and attack candidates without identifying themselves, we run the risk of becoming a plutocracy.

“The concern is that wealthy people can run money through these kinds of groups without any accountability, tell lies, attack people and then win in the end by destroying things they don’t particularly like,” Gould added.

Americans for Prosperity said Crawford’s latest bill continues to infringe upon free speech rights of organizations to “communicate with the public regarding public policy and the issue positions of elected officials.”

“It is imperative in a representative democracy that the free exercise of political speech should not be infringed,” said Brad Stevens, the regional director. “LB839 is broadly written in a way that would not only ensnare organizations but also private individuals from freely expressing their opinions.”

Crawford said the difference in this bill is that it does not require individuals who donate to organizations to be identified — only the organizations or individuals who purchase campaign ads targeting specific senators.

LB839 will go back before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee for a hearing, although no date has been set.

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