Maybe Gov. Bobby Jindal and reform-minded members new and old got the Legislature to install the silver standard of ethics laws for itself almost six years ago, but it seems clear that getting to a geniune gold standard is going to take some work, given some of the attitudes of its more revanchist members.
Last week the Joint Governmental and Affairs Committee (that is, each chamber’s respective committee of this kind) met to gather data as a result of state Sen. Jody Amedee’s SCR 78 passed last session. The bill asked to study the appropriate use of campaign funds and the administration and enforcement of laws within the jurisdiction of the state’s Board of Ethics. It is to deliver a report on the subject in just under three months.
Board and interest group representatives urged it to ban certain freewheeling practices legally allowed with campaign dollars. For example, lawmakers may use such money to pay for event tickets at which they are not invited guests and for meals and to lease vehicles of any quality for “non-personal” use as long as they have some remote connection to campaigning or performance of office duties. Serving as an example for the ordinary members of his chamber, Sen. Pres. John Alario spent since those reforms passed through last year over $52,000 on an auto lease, around $57,000 on events, and thousands more on fine dining.
Most other states ban some or all of these kinds of uses because they easily can masquerade as another form of compensation from a part-time job, yet committee members may have had trouble wrapping this concept around their heads. State Sen. Edwin Murray stated that the “focus should be on the disclosure side so the public knows what’s going on. We can make all the rules you want, but bad folks are going to find a way around them.”
But these are not mutually exclusive concepts; more exacting enforcement and barring certain questionable uses can be accomplished together. Indeed, Murray evinces an attitude that the current arrangement is perfectly fine, and “bad folks” only are those who don’t disclose enough. Worse, he implies you shouldn’t have any rules at all, because the evil in his mind always will figure out to nullify them. Then sticking his foot farther into his mouth, in dismissing the wise counsel that the state ought to adopt more restrictive rules akin to those for federal candidates, he claimed that most congressmen also have political action committees “where they can do everything pretty much they can’t do with their campaign account,” seemingly blissfully unaware that these so-called “leadership PACs” can’t spend on their own founder’s campaigns.
Which goes to show the disconnection from reality he and probably other legislators suffer. There’s no business that a legislator absolutely must conduct at a sporting event or during chowing down that he can’t perform elsewhere, or by phone or e-mail – an office for which to perform these are provided by the taxpayer There’s no reason a legislator needs a car dedicated to performance of his office – the state pays a per diem for official business with use of a personal vehicle, and slumming with constituents isn’t part of that (there may be a case for paying a car lease during a specified short period prior to an election and per diem mileage for that out of campaign funds, but certainly not through most of an incumbent’s term). And on and on.
Campaign funds should be just for that – campaigning, and in a way that does not connect it to anything of value to the candidate/officeholder, whether that be tangible. If you want to shake hands with the multitudes at a sporting event, stand outside the structure and greet them as they come in, you don’t have to buy a ticket to go in there to a luxury box and receive them, or to meet them as you allow them to play through. Use your own bucks to go up to the counter at Popeye’s or Raising Cane’s to score some grub – you’ve got a better chance to meet the masses that way and it looks better for you out in the open supporting homegrown businesses.
The problem with the permissive standards is that it distracts them from what they are there for or trying to become – public servants. Under the current regulations it’s too easy to want to be in office not so much because you want to provide good public policy, but in order to live the high life, using the promise or reality of power to entice donations in exchange for access. In other words, it threatens to turn you into David Duke, for whom campaigning for office was as much a way to support himself as it was to gain power.
Legislators would be wise to remove this temptation from their own kind and all elected officials with much more stringent requirements to justify use of campaign bucks. And Jindal would be smart to finish the job he started by reinserting himself into this issue with that agenda.