UPDATE: Secretary of state opinion could open back door to legislators fundraising during session

Update 3:20 p.m. - An official with Nevada's secretary of state sent an additional email attempting to clarify state campaign finance law regarding the ability of political action committees led by legislators to fundraise during the 120-day legislative session.

In an email, Deputy Secretary of State for Elections Wayne Thorley said the secretary of state's office has "historically" viewed the law as requiring PACs led by lawmakers to be subject to the same fundraising blackout laws that individual legislators are subjected to.

"Given the close-knit structure of most leadership PACs, the Secretary of State has historically taken the position that a legislator is reasonably presumed to be personally involved in the fundraising activities of a leadership PAC with which that legislator is affiliated," he wrote. "This position has not changed. The statement on Saturday was merely intended to clarify that the statutory prohibition against fundraising during a blackout period is not imputed to a political organization in which the legislator may hold a leadership position."

***

A recent opinion from Nevada’s secretary of state may have opened the door to lawmakers being able to indirectly raise campaign funds during the 120-day legislative session.

In a “clarification” press release and in response to questions from The Nevada Independent, Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske said that political PACs and other groups chaired by lawmakers can fundraise during the legislative session as long as individual lawmakers aren’t directly soliciting campaign funds.

In effect, the opinion gives monied interest and campaign donors a backdoor into circumventing Nevada law that prohibits legislators, the governor and lieutenant governor from soliciting or accepting monetary contributions or “a commitment to make such a contribution for any political purpose” during, as well as 30 days before and after, a 120-day legislative session.

Questions arose after the Nevada Republican Party sent a query to Cegavske on Friday, questioning whether or not the state Democratic Party would be subject to the same blackout on fundraising that individual lawmakers are subject to during the legislative session if Democratic Assemblyman Will McCurdy was elected chairman of the party.

Though her initial response seemed to indicate that any group chaired by a person subject to the fundraising blackout would be likewise barred from receiving or soliciting campaign contributions, Cegavske’s office sent out a press release on Saturday clarifying her position on McCurdy.

“In the hypothetical situation where the chair of a political committee is a person subject to the fundraising restriction found in NRS 294A.300, it is the person who is prohibited from soliciting or accepting contributions for any political purpose on behalf of the committee,” she wrote.

While that jibed with McCurdy’s plan to appoint a “finance council” and not solicit federal donations from groups before the Legislature during the 120-day session, it appears to open the door for other PACs to indirectly fundraise during the blackout period.

In an email, Deputy Secretary of State for Elections Wayne Thorley said the office interpreted the fundraising blackout statute to only apply to individual lawmakers, and not expanded to groups or PACs chaired by legislators.

“The statute references a specific and finite group of people that are prohibited from soliciting or accepting monetary contributions during the blackout period,” he wrote.  “Accordingly, the prohibition never applies to a political party committee, PAC, or any other entity.  It also does not apply to elected officials not specifically mentioned in the statutory language.”

“If such a person does engage in soliciting or accepting monetary contributions on behalf of a political organization during the blackout period, the violation is by the individual person, not by the organization,” he added.

The opinion appeared to back up a tweet by Republican Senate Leader Michael Roberson, who indicated he believed a legislator's leadership PAC could now fundraise during the session.

Political and leadership PACs play an outsized role in Nevada campaign finance — groups chaired or led by lawmakers raised and spent more than $14 million on down-ballot races during the 2016 election cycle, which is slightly more than what all 63 members of the Legislature reported raising over the same period.

And unlike donations to individual candidates, Nevada law doesn’t set a limit on the amount one individual or business can donate to a political PAC.