Lawmakers push bills to make government more transparent

DOVER — Five bills recently filed by lawmakers would promote transparency in state government and the election process, advocates claim.

The proposals would create an independent redistricting commission, mandate presidential candidates release their tax returns in order to gain ballot access in Delaware, place greater disclosure requirements on political donors, restrict lawmakers from using state resources for non-government business and impose harsher penalties on candidates who fail to file campaign finance reports.

“Now, more than ever, the public needs reassurance that it can trust its government and its elections,” Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat who is the lead sponsor on four of the bills, said in a statement. “Delawareans should have peace of mind knowing that their government is putting the public interest first. By strengthening the integrity of our elections and campaign finance laws, this legislative package offers lawmakers a chance to do exactly that.”

Senate Bill 27 would create an independent nine-member commission to redraw legislative district lines every 10 years. The process is currently overseen by the General Assembly, which can lead to gerrymandering.

The commission would give at least three political parties representation and allow members of the public to serve. Applicants would initially be selected by a panel of judges, with the secretary of state then randomly choosing nine names.

Members would be barred from running for office in the following election and from lobbying with the General Assembly or Congress for five years.

Legislation to create a redistricting commission, whose members would be chosen by lawmakers, was filed in June but went nowhere.

The current redistricting bill has bipartisan support.

“Having a balanced, independent body manage the redistricting process keeps communities together, eliminates gerrymandering, and brings balance to the process,” Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, a Republican from Georgetown, said in a statement.

“Building a fair process like this is a win for the people of the state of Delaware, instead of the political interests as in the current process.”

Thirteen states currently have independent redistricting commissions.

Senate Bill 28 would require candidates for president and vice president file tax returns with the Delaware commissioner of elections, who would then make them publicly available.

President Donald Trump controversially refused to release his tax returns during the campaign, saying he would do so when a current audit had been completed.

Lawmakers in several states, including New Jersey, have since proposed legislation that would force candidates to turn over tax documents.

“The candidates for our country’s highest offices must not only be held to high standards but to basic standards in transparency and integrity,” said Rep. Sean Lynn, a Dover Democrat, said in a statement. “We are taking the necessary steps in Delaware to ensure that our residents are presented with honest pictures of the candidates for president and vice president of the United States.”

Senate Bill 29 would eliminate language in state law exempting lawmakers from the code of conduct that governs other state employees and would add new restrictions on legislators using state funds for personal gain.

Delaware received an F in a 2015 analysis by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, something cited by supporters of the bill.

Senate Bill 30 would mandate donors to campaigns and political action committees reveal their employers, a step recommended by a 2013 report put together by former Delaware Chief Justice Norman Veasey.

House Bill 78 would bar from holding or running for office anyone who has not paid all fines associated with late filing of campaign reports.

In 2012, the state changed the fines from $50 a month to $50 a day for late filers.

“Delaware’s campaign finance disclosure policies should not be taken lightly,” main sponsor Rep. Kim Williams, a Newport Democrat, said in a statement. “Campaign finance reports provide the public with the opportunity to vet candidates and give them a clear picture of who is running for public office. Candidates who file financial reports late, or who rack up a multitude of unpaid fines, should be held accountable.”

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