Alabama’s campaign finance law has been broken for years, and lawmakers in Montgomery tried to fix it. So you already know what happened: they made a bad problem even worse.
That’s because after decades of widespread criticism of our state’s haphazard, good-for-nothing campaign finance law, Montgomery’s solution to fixing the problem wasn’t to crack down on the violations of the public trust that campaign finance laws are meant to ward against. Instead, their solution was something that would make even the most corrupt politicians blush.
They decided that — at least for a few years — Alabama didn’t really need a campaign finance law at all. The new rules? Do whatever floats your political boat, ethics be damned, and taxpayers will foot the bill.
Before 1988, Alabama didn’t even have a campaign finance law. That year, though, the Legislature finally heeded modern ethical standards and passed a toothless but symbolic law aimed at stemming dark money in state politics. That law, the Fair Campaign Practices Act, didn’t work effectively then and hasn’t really gotten any better.
That doesn’t mean the all-knowing Alabama Legislature hasn’t tried, though. Since 1988, and particularly since the GOP took control of state politics in 2010, the Legislature has attempted to “solve” the issue several times.
In 2013, for example, the Republican majority in Montgomery “fixed” the FCPA by amending it to remove the $500 cap on political donations from corporations. That 2013 update to the law was also supposed to add stiff penalties for candidates for office who filed late or inaccurate reports of their campaign donations or expenditures. Emphasis on “supposed to.”
Spoiler alert: It didn’t work.
Instead of clarifying and closing the details and loopholes of the original FCPA, the 2013 update muddied the waters even further. The December following the 2013 language’s passage, Attorney General Luther Strange issued an opinion advising then-Secretary of State Jim Bennett that he (Bennett), despite serving as Alabama’s top election official, didn’t have legal standing to assess fees to candidates when they violated the campaign finance law.
Essentially, the law as written didn’t authorize anyone to collect these fees — a perfect storm for candidates across the state to bend and break the law at their own whim. And they definitely did.
After his election to office in November 2014, current Secretary of State John Merrill began advocating for even more “reforms” to the law. Recognizing that no penalties were being assessed for violations of the FCPA, Merrill made his case for changes to the Legislature.
He said that his office looked at potential violations from the 2014 election cycle and the analysis showed that $60,000 to $100,000 in fines could have — and should have — been assessed had Montgomery done its job the first time.
So the Legislature, and in particular Sen. Arthur Orr, the same lawmaker who’d made the grievous error in the 2013 language, went back to the drawing board. And what did they decide? In 2015, Goat Hill passed another “fix” that allows Alabama’s secretary of state to assess those fines that should have been assessed for years. The fine print? It doesn’t kick in until the 2018 election cycle.
A law its sponsor said “will bring a lot more transparency and accountability to our electoral system” won’t do anything at all for years. Until then, the Yellowhammer State is destined for a campaign finance free-for-all. And it’s already begun.
One of the only positive changes in the arena over the years is that all of the campaign finance reports — at least the ones actually filed — are available on the secretary of state’s website, a welcome change that brings some transparency to a complicated and opaque system.
I examined reports on the site showing that in 2015 more than 500 campaign finance reports were filed late. Of those, had there actually been any law in effect, hundreds could have been assessed fines: 324 fines of $500 or 10 percent of the reported amount, whichever is higher, could have been assessed; 47 fines of the higher of $600 or 15 percent could have been collected; 89 penalties of $1,200 or 20 percent could have been assessed.
At a bare minimum, these penalties would have brought in nearly $300,000 in revenue (and potentially much, much more) for the state had the Alabama Legislature cared to actually “fix” anything at all.
So that’s the reality. Even right now, as of press time, 38 campaign committees and political action committees have filed their November reports late; another 37 still haven’t turned them in at all. Both of those would be violations of the law … if it were 2018, or if we had a competent Legislature. If only.
So, until 2018, we’ve got to be the campaign finance police. Not the press — the public. Election officials can’t hold them accountable until 2018, but you can. Go to the secretary of state’s website monthly and check the reports filed late. Look through that list for your local legislators. If you see them, give them a ring and tell them that if you filed your finance reports late, you’d be getting a call from the IRS, so they should get a call, too.
Until we can rely on Montgomery to tame this campaign finance free-for-all, we’ll just have to do it ourselves.
CORRECTION: While Senator Arthur Orr supported some provisions of the 2013 campaign finance amendments, he voted against the final version of the bill. The 2013 legislation was sponsored and spearheaded by former Sen. Bryan Taylor.
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