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Ethics reform for dummies, Part 2: Campaign finance



March 28, 2013 — My second memo to Georgia legislators: Sen. Jeff Mullis wants to level the playing field regarding campaign fund-raising for legislative races (because incumbents are at such a disadvantage).

A worthy goal, but I’d do it a little differently. Here are five suggestions for improving Georgia’s campaign finance laws:

1) Bar incumbent legislators from accepting political contributions if they don’t draw opposition at qualifying time. Under the current system, committee chairs may amass huge warchests that intimidate potential donors to a primary challenger. Who wants to throw money away on a losing cause? Don Balfour, for one, has $673,000 in the bank, which was why he could tell a reporter, “We have been doing this for 20 years, and I still keep getting re-elected.”

(Personally, I’d be tempted to take it a step further and require that incumbents donate all their remaining campaign money to charity after winning re-election. That would help you work to earn the public’s trust every two years. But we can talk more about that later.)

2) Prohibit political campaigns from passing money on to other campaigns. Some of the most powerful special interests in Georgia are the leadership teams in the House and Senate. They draw themselves into safe districts, raise tens of thousands of dollars from lobbyists and PACs at pre-session fund-raisers, then dole it out to protect vulnerable incumbents. As one lawmaker told me a year ago, “They spread it around like manure.” 

That fertilizer also grows loyalty that aspiring lawmakers use to achieve their own political ambitions. Terry Coleman and Larry Walker, when they duked it out in 2002 over who would be the next speaker of the House, gave several hundred thousand dollars between them to the other Democratic representatives who would decide. Coleman gave more, and he won. Is that how we want legislative leadership to be chosen? If they paid you or me on election day, they’d go to prison.

3) Explicitly outlaw the mechanism used by former Majority Leader Chip Rogers and others last year to move $140,000 from the Senate Republican Caucus to an “independent” committee to promote their re-elections. Rogers et al argued that their lawyers said it was legal. It’s hard to see how it could be, but why not spell it out so the law states clearly that you can’t do that?

4) While you’re at it, start reining in the ways that campaigns can spend money. Georgia law is good about listing what you can spend money on, but says nothing specific about what you can’t. So it’s never questioned when politicians use campaign cash to rent expensive condos year-round, travel all around the country, pay themselves mileage for every day of their lives and buy cameras, computers, TVs, furniture and Brooks Brothers clothing. One guy paid himself for the 20-mile trip every day to pick up his mail at the post office. Others justify using campaign money to get their lawns mowed because their home is also their “campaign headquarters.” Please: Set some standards and show a little class.

5) Make political action committees report all the money they collect and spend just as candidates must do. Now, PACs only disclose if they spend $25,000 or more specifically on campaign contributions in one year. PACs are well aware of this threshold, and some limit their spending so they won’t have to disclose it. (Former House Speaker Glenn Richardson and title pawn lender Rod Aycox both told me so about their PACs.) And someone please close the loophole that let Richardson and ex-Gov. Sonny Perdue transfer hundreds of thousands of dollars to their personal PACs, where the cash could be spent any way they wanted without oversight, simply by registering them as charities.

Next up, we’ll talk about what candidates disclose about their campaign and personal finances.

Ethics reform for dummies, Part 1: Lobbyist gifts





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