If there’s going to be change to Louisiana’s laws regarding the use of campaign funds, it won’t come this year, and it won’t come from legislators. But it can, and must, come.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune and WVUE-TV in New Orleans continue their series on campaign finance matters, now focusing on spending habits of elected state officials. As opposed to thier efforts reviewing donations, which was plagued with sketchiness that provided poor context for understanding the nature and scope of the significance and impact of donations, especially relative to the First Amendment, this investigation is much more solid in its analysis. It underscores that the general wording of statutes regarding how campaign donations may be spent leads to much leeway that threatens to pervert the intended and essential nature of these offices.
For example, if you spot state Rep. Steve Pugh dining out, go by and have a chat with him. By doing so, he can follow his past practice of ringing up his entire meal from his campaign account, an apparently legal practice such are the open-endedness of the laws (although don’t do it too often: at the end of 2012 he was down to less than $5,000 in that account so he might have to cut back unless he had a good 2013 fundraising year, details on that coming within 10 days).
While some of these officials appear to minimally make such expenditures, others rack up tens of thousands of dollars a year on things that under federal law would be prohibited, defined as “if the contribution or amount is used to fulfill any commitment, obligation, or expense of a person that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s election campaign or individual’s duties as a holder of … office,” which would rule out Pugh’s strategy. Other items listed in federal law that would be prohibited not already prohibited under state law are a clothing purchase; a country club membership; a vacation or other non-campaign-related trip; a tuition payment; admission to a sporting event, concert, theater, or other form of entertainment not associated with an election campaign; and dues, fees, and other payments to a health club or recreational facility.
Thus, to change Louisiana law, strictures like these would have to enter the election code, but also involves defining “campaign-related.” That could be done easily by signifying any period within nine months of a qualifying date for an office as a period of campaigning for that office. Outside of that period, and trips and tickets cannot be reimbursed out of a campaign fund.
This creation of an eligibility period might raise hackles with a few politicians for 39 months every four years, although principally with whoever is governor. Gov. Bobby Jindal has traveled extensively during his terms in office, and while many of those expenses have been covered by other sources or as state business, some have come from his campaign account. But even a very actively-traveling governor like Jindal would not be too inconvenienced by this tightening of rules. As long as it legitimate state business was at least part of the trip’s purpose, he could have the state pay for it (constrained by what funding the legislature gives and by public opinion), or other sources could offer to pay, so this should not limit much.
And outside of that, the governor is least affected by these kinds of changes. His budget already includes paying for many of these kinds of items, he makes a full-time salary for his full-time job, and others rarely would be relevant as expenditures (except for the occasional law school student). It’s the part-timers that would be expected to resist these changes.
That means legislators as a whole, and would include the four of them – House Speaker and Senate President and their respective pro-tems – that get paid a full-time salary. While some do want to act as public servants first and foremost, too many of them pursue the position because they like exercising power most of all. And they chafe at having to hold down a real job in order to subsidize this power trip as part of their lives and wish to be rid of this constraint.
There’s good reason constitutionally and philosophically why a Louisiana state legislator’s job is part-time and should be paid as such, so for those who feel constricted by serving in a position they volunteered for, the next best thing to freeing themselves of non-legislative work requirements and/or the pecuniary demands these can satisfy is to dip into the campaign account. They will be loath to alter this arrangement, especially when, outside of a newspaper series and cranky blog posts, there’s no real evidence that the public has mobilized around this.
That’s why legislators are slow-walking completion of a report mandated by SCR 78 from 2013, now already overdue, which was to explore the issue of appropriate uses of campaign funds. They don’t see an imperative, and rightly so since the year 2014 means nothing to them in the way in which they can be pressured the most, electoral terms.
But they will in 2015, because it is their reelection year. Yet as there seems to be no great public groundswell on the issue, it will take a policy entrepreneur with the means to publicize the issue enough to make it a campaign issue to which they must respond, and that potential legislative newcomers will grasp onto.
Of course, this means Jindal. He has nothing to lose in that if he ever seeks state elective office again, it will be no sooner than five years from now that any changes would affect him. And it’s something he did before, as the very first consequential act of his governorship in calling a special session to cover the disclosure and adjudication sides of public servant behavior. While not optimizing, what came out of this effort was a clear improvement.
So he should do it again. When 2015 comes, he should tell legislators he’s calling a special session to make just these changes, putting everybody on the record just in time for campaign season and leaving the regular session as an opportunity for him to exert some leverage for the special session, through promises of support or opposition and vetoes during the regular session if he doesn’t see the special session changes come into law.
And he should get help from 2015 gubernatorial aspirants. By throwing this out there in such a public manner, assuredly at least one candidate will see how this can be turned into a winning issue, and in proselytizing about it pronounces that any failure to pass these reforms in 2015 would lead to the issue being emphasized as the first order of business of this new governor in 2016. Chances are, more than one, perhaps even all, major candidates will jump in on this. The message will be legislators can do it now, or face perhaps an even more formidable effort (some legislators may think they can dodge the issue in rationalizing that Jindal is a lame duck and can only influence them just one more regular session) in the future.
If Jindal leads on this, others will follow out of political necessity. As he’s likely contemplating a political career outside of and more exalted than his present post, leading this charge can’t be a political negative for that purpose, especially when improving budgetary numbers as seen currently always improve executive-legislative comity, thereby giving him more leeway to otherwise irritate legislators.
But besides that, he should because it’s simply the right thing to do. Allowing these kinds of uses tempts part-time politicians to think of donations as a means not of winning office in order to serve the people, but as a way to enjoy more comfort in life, and puts self-preservation in office ahead of making good policy. It places one squarely on the path to corruption, which simply never should be encouraged. Maybe not this year, but absolutely next year the time is ripe for this reform and Jindal must light the fuse.