James Gill: Lawmakers have poor command of math

You’ve heard of the Alliance for Good Government, but someone ought to establish a rival outfit.

If we had an Alliance for Bad Government, its award for chutzpah this year would surely have to go to Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge.

Dorsey-Colomb is by no means the only legislator to have snaffled more in campaign contributions from political committees than the law allows.

But most of the others have paid the money back, claiming it was all an honest mistake. Clerical error is apparently so common in Baton Rouge that we really need to do something about the education system.

Meanwhile, there are three hold-outs. Sen. Elbert Guillory, R-Opelousas, and former Sen. Francis Heitmeier have not said what, if anything, they plan to do about the excess loot. But Dorsey-Colomb is no shrinking violet. She has filed a bill to raise the contribution limits to a level that would have left her in the clear had it applied when she ran for re-election in 2011.

The bill is not retroactive, but it doesn’t need to be. Once a year has passed, candidates cannot be forced to reimburse. The Ethics Board has the authority to levy fines for campaign violations, but its administrator, Kathleen Allen, has said she cannot recall a single investigation of political committee moolah. She has held her job since 1997.

Only when that other newspaper took an interest last year did the latest violations come to light.

The law currently says candidates for major office can take no more than $80,000 from political committees in each election cycle. Legislators can pocket $60,000 and others $20,000. Dorsey wants to raise those limits to $120,000, $100,000 and $60,000. In the last election, she took $26,550 more than she was supposed to.

Because the bill benefits only politicians, and organizations wanting to be their friends, Dorsey-Colomb’s colleagues ought to be embarrassed to pass it. But don’t rule it out.

Voters may not care much about changes to campaign finance laws anyway, given that they are hardly ever enforced and therefore frequently flouted. Take, for instance, the requirement that contributions be spent “solely for campaign purposes.”

Heitmeier, who took $35,000 over the limit when he ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2006, left the Senate the next year with more than $400,000 in the kitty, which he has continued to spend on football tickets and fine meals. He is clearly having too much fun to think about any more campaigns.

One of his suite mates at Tiger Stadium, Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, did at least return more than $100,000 in excess payments from political committees. Alario, who hasn’t faced an opponent since 2007, has managed to unload around $800,000 in regular campaign and political committee contributions in the last five years. Imagine how much he’ll spend if he ever has to contest an election.

This legislative session will feature one bill seeking to rein in campaign fund expenditures. Rep. Greg Miller, R-Norco, wants to outlaw the purchase of motor vehicles.

Perhaps that may be regarded as conducive to probity in public life, but the improvement will only be a modest one, for politicians will still be able to lease their wheels with donated dollars. Indeed, some of them already prefer to do so. In 2013, Alario, for instance, reported spending more than $8,000 in lease payments to BMW.

It is highly unlikely that contributors are surprised, far less outraged, if it appears that their money is not being spent strictly as the law requires. So long as the recipients remember who their friends are when it matters, they can put the money on a horse for all the contributors care. The well-wishers who gave Heitmeier all the extra cash might be wondering by now, however, whether it was worth it.

Dorsey-Colomb backers, on the other hand, probably don’t mind if she keeps the political committee money That’s probably just as well.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.