Jeremy Alford

The bills that get introduced by Louisiana lawmakers for consideration in legislative sessions have become predictable. More times than not, for example, there are pro-gun and anti-abortion proposals. There are almost always bills to enhance infrastructure, create jobs and shape budgets. But campaign finance law isn’t an area legislators enjoy diving into when sessions roll around.

If you give a moment of thought to what makes campaigns tick and take an honest look at how politicians actually spend their time, that avoidance might sound odd. Campaign finance issues, after all, creep into every corner of government via supporters who land state contracts, contributors who are appointed to boards and donors who are allowed to bend elected ears.

Yet lawmakers are rarely eager to tackle the policy topic. To find the last time sweeping and substantive campaign finance changes were made legislatively, you would have to go back to the first term of former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who passed his “Gold Standard” reform package in 2008. And if you want to find the rules that govern so-called super PACs (political action committees), most all of those guidelines were written by judges, not lawmakers.

So it’s a nice change of pace to see the Legislature tackling a campaign finance issue right now. Lawmakers could have ignored SB 4 by Sen. Ed Price, D-Gonzales, especially since it’s the only campaign finance bill introduced for the ongoing regular session. Instead, the bill is on the move and has a real shot of becoming law.

As the regular session nears its midpoint, Price’s bill has been approved by the full Senate and is awaiting hearings on the House side. Citing a desire for more transparency across today’s fundraising landscape, Price’s bill would eliminate the aggregate limits on donations given to political candidates by political committees. Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Shreveport, filed a similar bill last year, but it failed to gain traction. (This has allowed Price to label his bill as “bipartisan.”)

Candidates must currently navigate a tiered system when accepting donations from political committees — the combined contribution limits for both primary and general elections are $80,000 for major office candidates, $60,000 for district-level candidates and $20,000 for all other office-seekers. These are the caps for each term of service, which is four years in the Legislature.

By filing legislation to do away with these limits for political committees, Price is also lifting the veil on modern fundraising in Baton Rouge. When their donors reach these limits, lawmakers and others typically form secondary campaign committees to begin the giving process anew. Sometimes these secondary accounts are called leadership committees or leadership PACs.

Each account is separate and different, with their own names that more times than not have nothing to to do with the affiliated candidates. That makes research into campaign finance activity difficult. For instance, if you want to look into the donations made to the campaign of Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, you would simply search for his name on the Ethics Administration’s website. But if you wanted to explore the money in his secondary account, you would need to either do some extra digging or know it’s called Mo PAC.

“Everybody is just forming different committees now to get around these donation limits,” said Price. “When you ‘PAC out’ and have reached your limit with a particular PAC, they’ll call you and tell you they have another contribution to give you. They want to know if you have a different committee they can send it to on your behalf.”

In Washington, D.C., the practice can be much more complex, with lawmakers creating a web of secondary leadership committees to which maxed-out donors can be directed.

“It’s just hidden money,” said Price. “My bill is about transparency. Is what we have right now transparency? Or is it just a way to bypass having to directly report contributions? All contributions should be public record. Let’s take the limits off. At least we’ll know who gets what and where it’s coming from.”

The bill has some merit and Louisiana would not be stepping out on a limb. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are 13 other states that allow unlimited amounts from political committees (aggregate) to be given to candidate committees.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.

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