Inside Report: Handling campaign funds

After years of urging, leaders of two key legislative panels appear to be poised to tackle some thorny issues surrounding the appropriate use of campaign funds.

Under state law, campaign contributions cannot be used, loaned or pledged for any personal expense unrelated to a political campaign, the holding of public office or party position.

Expenditures related to political campaigns are fairly clear cut — mailers, media buys, bumper stickers and other trappings.

But it gets a lot muddier when it comes to spending campaign cash on things related to the holding of public office.

Campaign finance reports year after year show politicians buying and leasing cars, renting apartments, paying for tickets to LSU and Saints football games, paying country club and civic club dues and buying flowers and gifts.

Exactly what’s personal and what’s outside the campaign arena has created problems for the Louisiana Board of Ethics as it polices campaign finance disclosure laws.

The Ethics Board has made forays into the arena in recent years as it has tried to enforce the nebulous law. The panel formed a committee — it’s now defunct — to develop administrative rules detailing specific off-limits expenditures and other guidelines. The board also on more than one occasion in recent years asked legislators to weigh in to provide more guidance in state law, noting that any rules it may adopt would require legislative signoff.

This time around, two state legislative committee chairmen, Sen. Jody Amedee and Rep. Tim Burns, agreed to at least hold hearings on the issue.

The Senate and House Governmental Affairs Committees’ initial hearing gave little indication of where legislators are headed.

Burns, R-Mandeville, says he thinks he knows where the discussion is headed: “Clarifying what’s personal and what’s not and requiring more disclosure.”

Burns said the key may be to put what he called “the burden of proof” on the candidate who would have to disclose more information about expenditures. “You would have to sit and say to yourself, ‘What is the political purpose of it?’ ” Burns said.

“We are doing a little fact-finding,” said Amedee, R-Gonzales. “We are probably going to make some adjustments. Exactly what, I don’t know.” But he suggested coming up with a potential list of expenditures that would be off-limits.

Public Affairs Research Council President Robert Travis Scott said legislators should consider adding the guidelines used by the Federal Elections Commission.

Those rules state that if an expense would exist even in the absence of the candidacy or even if the officeholder were not in office, then the personal-use ban applies. Among items on the banned-use list are tickets to sporting events, concerts, dues to country clubs and health clubs, personal mortgage payments or clothing for political functions.

“It’s not some giant leap,” said Scott. “You are not giving up that big a perk for the sake of a much better image for the state.”

Scott said there also needs to be more transparency on the purpose of expenditures. For instance, who is receiving gifts — not just where the gifts were purchased — and who is using a plane ticket — not just that one was purchased, he said.

The other issue is potential double dipping, Scott said.

Legislators get per diem payments for food and lodging for sessions, committee meetings and other activities they attend in their official capacity. But many also charge expenses to their campaign accounts for food and lodging at the same time.

“Per diem is a good government policy if used right. They are paid this little bit from the taxpayer, rather than depending on special interest to pay for it,” Scott said. If you use campaign funds to pay for those things covered by per diem, “you are kind of enriching yourself,” he said.

Burns said he will be discussing the issues surrounding personal use with fellow legislators to get their thoughts.

“This is an area you think is pretty straightforward. It is not,” Burns said. “We are going to do something. We need to do something.”

Marsha Shuler covers ethics for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. Her email is mshuler@theadvocate.com.