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House bill could open floodgates for caucus PACs
By JIM WALLS
March 9, 2015 — A bill making it easier for political caucuses to help incumbent Georgia legislators get re-elected may be headed for a House vote this week.
The change would come just in time to protect the 70-some incumbent Republicans who voted last week for Rep. Jay Roberts’ $1 billion transportation funding bill, denounced by some conservatives as a pro-tax, big-government travesty.
Currently, political parties in Georgia can get around campaign contribution limits for individual candidates by paying for so-called “multi-candidate” advertising that endorses more than one. Parties can only donate $2,500 to each candidate but spend tens of thousands of dollars on ads for multiple candidates.
Typically, such mailers or TV ads prominently feature a single candidate’s race; the names of the other endorsed candidates only appear in teeny-tiny print.
Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem), sponsor of a pending campaign finance bill, got a House subcommittee to amend it Thursday to exempt party caucuses in the House and Senate from spending limits in the same circumstances.
Those caucuses now can give money to their state party for multi-candidate ads, Fleming said, and the amendment is intended to “eliminate the middleman.”
But it would also eliminate the need for the caucuses to comply with party rules that prohibit endorsing candidates in a primary. Thus, the caucuses could spend as much as they wanted to help incumbents facing a primary challenger from, say, a Tea Party-backed candidate.
Caucuses have done so before, most recently in 2010 when party caucuses paid for multi-candidate mailings to help Sen. Vincent Fort and Rep. Rashad Taylor fend off opponents in the Democratic primary.
The state ethics commission put a stop to the practice in 2011, issuing an advisory opinion that party caucuses did not fall under the exemption political parties. Since then, caucuses that want to circumvent spending limits for a single incumbent have had to donate money to the state party and ask that it pay for multi-candidate ads.
(Full disclosure: I was the one, after writing about the Fort race, who requested the opinion.)
Fleming said his amendment is about transparency, not spending limits. The intent is for voters to have a clearer idea of which races the caucus is targeting.
The House Republican caucus has no need to monkey with spending limits, Fleming said, because individual members also raise money and donate to Republicans who appear to be in a close race.
“Ever since I’ve been associated with the Legislature, 12 years, we have given money to primary races in an organized fashion,” he said. “The idea that we can’t put enough money into those races right now as we see fit is just not a legitimate idea. … The caucus already pumps money into those when we want to.”
Maybe so, but the Senate Republican Caucus felt the need in 2012 to use a different route to circumvent spending limits. That summer, the caucus gave $155,000 to a newly created PAC to produce and send out mails on behalf of eight incumbents.
To advance, Fleming’s bill needs the approval of the full Governmental Affairs Committee as well as the full House this week. Friday is the 30th day of the Legislature’s 2015 session, also known as Crossover Day, the deadline for bills to be passed by one chamber if they are to be considered the other.