The old saying is give people an inch and they will take a mile. Unfortunately, this is especially true of politicians. We have all heard candidates make outrageous statements in the heat of the moment during a hard-fought campaign. But what is far worse is when those same politicians, behind the scenes, quietly ignore campaign finance laws that are designed to let the public know where political contributions come from and whether those contributions are being used in an above-board manner.
For example, a legislator died several years ago with a campaign balance of almost $100,000. Years elapsed and the next report showed just a few thousand dollars in the campaign account. Where did the money go? Candidates have also purchased vehicles, computers, and other valuable assets with campaign dollars. What happens to those items when the campaign is over or to the money when these assets are sold? Often credit card purchases are not itemized as required by law. It is hard to tell how campaign money was spent with a $5,000 payment to Visa as an entry line on a report. Large payments to “cash” have also been noted on reports. Where was the money spent?
There are current officeholders who have gone substantial lengths of time without filing their required reports to show how much money their campaign fund has and which businesses or individuals contributed the money. Money is a form of influence and the people deserve to know the origin of a candidate’s contributions and how that money is being spent.
To complicate the matter, to this point no single law enforcement agency has been responsible for overseeing Alabama’s campaign laws. The Secretary of State’s Office has never been structured to enforce campaign finance laws and the Attorney General and local district attorneys are often overwhelmed with a caseload of violent crimes. So if a campaign skirts the law it often goes unpunished and when an honest politician does have a question of how best to follow election laws, authoritative guidance has not been available. Then there is the awkward reality of one elected official (a district attorney, the Attorney General or the Secretary of State) investigating another elected official or candidate, possibly for political advantage.
That is why the Republican-led legislature passed a bill in the recent legislative session that will bring transparency to the political process and empower the non-partisan Ethics Commission to ensure that election laws are followed.
For instance, this reform increases transparency by lowering the threshold for filing an electronic campaign report from $10,000 to $5,000 and requires a candidate to more quickly file campaign contributions of any amount. Previously, candidates would often hold a potentially controversial contribution in reserve, but use the check to pay for media advertisements with a wink and nod to the vendor. The sped-up timeline for reporting campaign contribution means that the public will know where the money is coming from to pay for the political ads they see on TV, hear on the radio, or receive in the mail.
An even more important aspect of the reform is putting the Ethics Commission in charge of overseeing Alabama’s political campaign spending. The Ethics Commission, a non-political entity, is now empowered to supervise the campaign process and if necessary, investigate claims of illegal activity. The Ethics Commission will have the power to subpoena documents and will act as an impartial umpire over campaign financing. If the Commission should discover illegal activity, it will submit the evidence to the local district attorney or to the Attorney General for prosecution.
If a candidate for office has an honest question of how best to follow the law, the candidate may submit his or her question to the Ethics Commission that will then issue an advisory opinion. We need to encourage new people with fresh ideas to run for office and we don’t want these first-time candidates to inadvertently violate the law through inexperience.
This landmark reform sheds the light of transparency on political campaign activity and appoints an objective, non-partisan enforcement agent in the Ethics Commission to monitor the process and ensure everyone plays by the same rules. Voters give legislators enormous responsibilities in sending us to Montgomery and we owe it to the citizens of Alabama to give them the most open and fair government possible.
Senator Arthur Orr represents Limestone, Madison and Morgan Counties in the Alabama Senate and sponsored the reform of the campaign finance law. Senator Orr is Chairman of the General Fund budget committee. Visit arthurorr.com and follow him on Twitter: @SenatorAOrr