Monday, May 21, 2007

Alessi Fixes Primary… the 2011 Primary

From the Lexington Herald-Leader:

At times this spring, the primary races for governor have seemed less like exercises in democracy and more like a science experiment. It took an unusually long time to find all the ingredients to get it started. Once all the candidates were in the race, it fizzed and bubbled over. And at times, it seemed to smell funny.

On Tuesday, Kentucky will know the results of that experiment -- whether Republicans decide to give Gov. Ernie Fletcher a shot at a second term and whether the Democrats will have a nominee or have to pick between the top two finishers in a runoff.

As with any good scientific trial, Kentucky is likely to get more out of this spring's primary campaigns than just the candidates who will face off in the fall's general election. State officials have learned some broader lessons about the election system and changes that need to be made. Here's a rundown of the "to-do" list before the next governor's race in 2011:

• Eliminate the runoff. Lawmakers in both chambers and of both parties all agreed that the provision wasn't supposed to be left in the law.

Many legislators erroneously thought they had tossed out the runoff -- which kicks in if no candidate in a primary gets at least 40 percent of the vote -- when they eliminated many of the election reforms of 1992 that created public financing of the governor's race.

And by the time many realized it still existed at the start of the 2007 session, they argued about whether it was fair to this year's candidates to get rid of it. So, in the end, it remained. But most legislators say they'll kill the runoff next year.

• Increase campaign fund disclosure.

Because of another oversight in the way lawmakers undid the 1992 public financing of elections, candidates had to report what they'd raised and spent only twice in 2007 before the election: April 20 and May 7.

Six of the 10 candidates for governor (Democrat Jonathan Miller, who dropped out, remains on the ballot) didn't enter the race until after Jan. 1. That means the first time voters got a glimpse of their fund-raising levels and supporters was the month before the election. State Sen. Damon Thayer, a Georgetown Republican who chairs the chamber's state government committee, has said he favors more frequent disclosure.

Thayer, Secretary of State Trey Grayson and House state government committee chairman Rep. Mike Cherry, D-Princeton, also have called for mandatory electronic filing of those reports to the Registry of Election Finance. That would allow for the public to have almost instant access to the candidates' reports. This time, however, four Democratic candidates for governor, who collected several million dollars from donors, did not file electronically.

• Set guidelines for incumbents to reimburse taxpayers for political trips.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher -- Kentucky's first incumbent who has faced a strong re-election challenge -- attended political fund-raisers and events while on official trips funded by tax money. After the Herald-Leader reported that, Fletcher's campaign agreed to voluntarily repay some of the costs. Several lawmakers, including Cherry, said the legislature should look at requiring incumbents to do so.

• Address whether potential candidates can explore running for governor.

Democrat Steve Henry, for instance, started talking about running for governor last summer. But he wasn't able to pick a running mate in order to officially file to run for governor and start collecting and spending donations until January.

Now, he's under investigation for using an off-the-books federal account last year to lay the groundwork for a run for governor, which isn't allowed by current law. Grayson noted that a task force studying election reforms in 2005 recommended allowing prospective candidates to raise and spend money to test a possible run. "Maybe we should have exploratory committees," he said, adding that candidates could jump in the race sooner and would have more time to campaign.

• Debate disclosure of other funds benefiting an incumbent, such as a legal defense account.

Fletcher and his supporters set up a fund in January in which donors could give unlimited amounts of money to help the governor pay his legal bills related to the investigation into the administration's hiring policies. A grand jury indicted Fletcher as part of that inquiry.

Donors to the legal defense fund won't be revealed to the Executive Branch Ethics Commission until next year. Government watchdogs and Fletcher's critics have questioned whether donors to that fund, which was revealed in February by newspapers, have received special treatment, such as snaring contracts or tax breaks. "If there are people contributing, then everyone ought to be able to see it," Billy Harper, one of two GOP challengers to Fletcher, said during a debate.

"We need to be totally open for the public," he said.

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