By PHILLIP RAWLS
MONTGOMERY, Ala. —
Alabama legislators who have been studying state election laws say there’s a problem: Candidates for state offices have to report their contributions and expenditures to the secretary of state, but little is being done to make sure the reports are filed accurately.
The solution could be to create a small state agency similar to the Federal Elections Commission.
Since taking control of the Legislature in 2010, Republicans have enacted major changes in Alabama’s election laws, including requiring candidates for state offices to disclose their contributions more frequently and to file them electronically to make it easier for voters to search the donations.
State law requires candidates to file their reports with the secretary of state, but that office is simply a collector of the reports. And that’s where a problem exists, said Republican Sen. Bryan Taylor, of Prattville.
“There was nobody charged with monitoring campaign reports,” said Taylor, chairman of the Legislature’s Interim Study Committee on Campaign Finance Reform.
Another committee member, Republican Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur, said a glaring example of the problem is easily found among losing candidates. After losing, some never file the campaign finance reports that are due after an election. “But there is nobody there to throw a yellow flag,” Orr said.
The committee is developing a bill for consideration during the Legislature’s 2014 session, which starts in January.
With the current system, a candidate will review an opponent’s campaign finance reports and speak out if there is a potential problem, but no one is looking closely at those with no opposition, Taylor said.
Also, if people have a complaint, they can go to a district attorney or the attorney general, but the legislators said that often doesn’t lead anywhere if the complaint involves a minor infraction.
“The district attorneys and the attorney general don’t have the time to pursue violations at that level. But the public has a right to know who is financing a campaign,” Orr said.
Taylor said the committee looked at giving new authority to the secretary of state, but that office is an elected partisan office. The committee also considered giving new authority to the State Ethics Commission. But the commission is already very busy and it deals with a different area of state law, Taylor said.
That’s why the committee is considering the creation of a non-partisan board similar to the Federal Elections Commission. It could review candidate’s filings, check them for any problems, receive complaints about candidate’s reports, and give advice to candidates about how to comply with the law. It could also levy administrative fines for unintentional violations and refer intentional violations to a district attorney or attorney general for criminal prosecution. It would also do the same thing for political action committees, he said.
Alabama’s Republican secretary of state, Jim Bennett, called it “an intriguing idea” and said he’s always open to improving election laws. He said his office can’t give official legal advice to candidates about complying with campaign finance laws, but the commission would be able to help candidates by doing that.
House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said it’s a waste of state money to create a new agency. He said a bill clarifying the duties of the secretary of state, Ethics Commission, and attorney general would solve the issue.
“Why should the state waste your tax dollars on more government when this entire issue can be resolved with a one- or two-page resolution clarifying the responsibilities of existing agencies?” he said.
Taylor said, “It’s not surprising that the Democrat leader in the House has come out against greater oversight and enforceability of our campaign finance laws. We’re making the politicians more accountable to the voters, and some politicians just don’t like that.”
Orr, chairman of the Senate’s General Fund budget committee, said the committee is looking at a small staff, with an attorney possibly serving as the director and then having an investigator and assistant. He figures the cost would be $400,000 to $500,000 per year.
If a bill passes in the 2014 elections, it won’t take effect during the middle of the important state election year. Orr said the legislation would take effect in 2015 and apply to the 2016 elections.