Let’s hope a quarter-measure to make election finance honest, transparent, and more reflective of a commitment to free speech marks the first step to finishing a much larger task.
SB 4 by Democrat state Sen. Ed Price would remove limits to the amount of money a candidate may receive from political action committees for state and local offices. Currently, statewide executive offices and committee for candidates running at the highest judicial levels can receive only $80,000, other state office candidates and a few local ones have a limit of $40,000, and all others can receive no more than $20,000. Unaffected are varying limits on how much a single PAC may give to a single candidate. The bill has passed the Legislature and awaits action by Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Donation limits never have made sense, even if constitutionally permitted as a means to reflect honesty in elections and governance. These caps ultimately conflict with the First Amendment that recognizes donations to candidates reflect political speech. Given the incompatibility of trying to limit campaign dollars while allowing unlimited amounts expressing speech for or against candidates, an unwieldy system that obscures more than reveals and therefore may hide accountability governs campaign finance.
Price’s bill, as he pointed out during the debate, would remove a layer of hypocrisy from the process. PAC donors bound by these constraints find other means to inject cash into elections, such as creating other PACs that operate independently for or against candidates or issues associated with candidates, that sidestep limits like this.
Perhaps the most prominent and egregious recent example came in the 2015 First District Attorney contest, where a PAC called Louisiana Safety and Justice formed shortly before the election and served only as a dumping ground for nearly $1 million from leftist financier George Soros to campaign on behalf of recently-retired appellate judge Democrat James Stewart (also spending a tiny amount on behalf of Edwards). By the next April, after Stewart had won promising a cutback on death penalties sought by the office, it disbanded.
The bill would have affected this situation only by letting mega-donors spread money around to many PACs who then could give to their donation limits to a favored candidate without candidates having to adhere to the current reception limit. This illustrates the useless shell game these laws create without really cutting off the flow of bucks from a special interest.
Removing all the misdirection and the resulting confusion produces the best, most transparent, approach. Since determined donors will find legal ways to support or oppose a candidate in unlimited fashion, no limits should exist all for any office; donations of any size should be made legal as long as all are reported (with a requirement that anything over a certain size be reported within 24 hours of reception).
SB 4 takes a small step in that direction, and thus it merits becoming law. But to make elections robust both in political expression and in clarity of who backs whom, legislators must graduate to wiping out any ceilings (save those involving foreign nationals and their agents) to directing campaign donations to a candidate or cause.