- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - Next time you get a knock at the door from a campaign worker, you might want to ask whether he or she is being paid by the state to canvass for candidates.

Kansas law doesn’t allow state employees to work on political campaigns while on the clock, but it provides an exception for “the personal staff of any elected officer,” The Wichita Eagle (https://bit.ly/29MbfKp ) reports.

Gov. Sam Brownback isn’t on the ballot this year, but his personal staff is legally allowed to work on behalf of legislative candidates on taxpayer time, something that would be illegal for the average worker in a school district or state agency. The same goes for the personal staff of other eleced officials.

That exception is unusual, said Emily Shaw, a senior analyst with the Sunlight Foundation, a national group that pushes for government transparency.

“It sounds like an odd loophole in an otherwise very clear and strong law,” she said. “. That sounds terrible. It just sounds like the taxpayers are funding party work and that’s not their general obligation.”

Brownback’s personal staff consists of 21 people, according to a list his office provided to the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission in March.

These people “are specifically allowed by law to work on political campaigns,” said Eileen Hawley, the governor’s spokeswoman, in an email.

A 2000 opinion by the Ethics Commission decided that an elected official’s personal staff could campaign for any candidate, not just that specific elected official.

Hawley would not say whether any of the governor’s staff members were working on political campaigns during state time, but she said that some staff members may be doing “occasional or part-time” campaign work “while others are more deeply engaged in a campaign.”

“Working on a campaign can take many forms,” she said. “Some staff members may work evenings or weekends while others may devote more time to campaign support. In any event, any staff member working on a campaign adheres to the rules and regulations of the Kansas Ethics Commission.”

Carol Williams, the executive director of the Ethics Commission, said that it’s up to the individual office holders whether to “allow those people to do that work on state time or whether they’re to take leave.”

Hawley would not say whether the governor makes his employees take leave to do campaign work.

Rep. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, who is seeking the vacant seat in Senate District 27, posted a photo of himself and 10 campaign door walkers on Facebook last month with a message saying, “The Suellentrop for Senate crew! Coming soon to your door step.”

The photo, posted on June 14, a Tuesday, includes Ashley Moretti, a member of Brownback’s staff, and Eric Turek, who works for Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.

“Those two showed up late that afternoon on their own, I have not requested any help from any leadership,” Suellentrop said in an email. “They were sure happy to get into a picture of our winning campaign.”

He said his campaign usually starts knocking on doors around 4:30 or 5 p.m., when people get home from work.

Shaw said most states place restrictions on campaign work by public employees, but that it’s possible other states have loopholes like Kansas.

‘That’s up to the people’

The exception for personal staff also means that the full-time staff of legislative leaders can conduct campaign work, even during the legislative session.

For example, taxpayers paid the salary of Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley’s chief of staff, Tim Graham, on days when he was traveling the state to recruit Democratic candidates earlier this year.

“Ever since I started here it’s been a long-standing practice that legislative staffers have also been expected to do the duties of what political staffers do in other states,” Graham said. “Most states have both a political arm and a legislative arm and in Kansas that doesn’t exist.”

Republican leadership offices similarly devote large chunks of staff time to recruitment and election efforts.

Wagle’s office said in an e-mail that state law permits the office to assist campaigns and that the office “is working to elect a strong majority of Republican Senators.”

In many states, political parties would fund these efforts instead of taxpayers, and legislative staffers would be required to takes leaves of absence to work on campaigns, Graham said.

“I’m working in a system I didn’t create,” Graham said. “If the rules need to change, that’s up to the people, the Legislature.”

Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said travel and other campaign expense are paid for by the party’s political action committee, but he defended paying for the staff time with public dollars.

“Recruiting people to run for the Legislature is a very important endeavor even for the taxpayers,” Hensley said. “Because we’re trying to find quality people to run for office, who hopefully will be competitive and get elected, and then they will be serving the taxpayers.”

Other states’ laws

Some states have laws to explicitly forbid campaign work during official work hours at the taxpayer’s expense, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Maine, for example, requires partisan legislative employees to limit their campaign activities to evenings, weekends or to “take leave to pursue these activities if they occur during the Legislature’s regular business day.”

Alaska’s law says legislative employees cannot use “government time” to “assist in political party or candidate activities, campaigning, or fund raising.”

Montana requires legislators to reduce staff members’ salaries for the time spent on campaigns or to reimburse the state for that time.

Unlike Kansas, Arkansas law prohibits elected officials from dedicating state time or labor on behalf of other candidates.

Kansas law forbids legislative or executive branch employees from using state resources, such as state computers, to conduct campaign business. But it allows them to work out of government offices on taxpayer time, something explicitly forbidden by South Carolina law.

Many legislative and executive branch employees just bring a personal computer to the office. They can sit at the same desk, but as long as they use their personal computer to send a campaign-related e-mail, no law has been broken.

No way to track money

Assistant Secretary of State Eric Rucker said that personally he tries to limit campaign work to off hours and has taken leaves of absence in the past.

However, he said, the secretary of state’s office does not have a policy that requires that. “It’s certainly likely” campaign work has taken place during normal work hours, he said.

“There have been occasions during the work day where we have certainly discussed and may have accomplished some campaign activities between 8 and 5,” Rucker said.

State Treasurer Ron Estes handled the issue on a case-by-case basis in 2014 when he was up for re-election, said Ashley Murdie, his spokeswoman. None of the office’s employees is using staff time to work on campaigns this election.

Clint Blaes, a spokesman for Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office, said in an e-mail that none of Schmidt’s “personal staff have been working on campaigns this year, except possibly on their own time.”

Kansas law gives taxpayers no way to track how much of their money goes toward compensating staffers for political work because there’s no requirement that elected officials track or report the amount of time their staffs spend on campaign work.

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Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, https://www.kansas.com

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