Louisiana Purchased: Explaining state campaign finance law

"The legislature recognizes that the effectiveness of representative government is dependent upon a knowledgeable electorate and the confidence of the electorate in their elected public officials. The legislature, therefore, enacts this Chapter to provide public disclosure of the financing of election campaigns and to regulate certain campaign practices." 

Those are the introductory sentences of Chapter 11 of Louisiana's Election Code, commonly referred to as the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act. Lawmakers passed the act in 1980 and it took effect Jan. 1, 1981. It has been adjusted a few times since then, but the CFDA remains Louisiana's primary law governing what a person or group may contribute to a candidate for political office in this state, and how such contributions are reported to the public.

States pass their own campaign finance laws, and there are also laws regulating campaign finance in federal elections. What is their purpose? 

"It is believed by some that money has the potential to corrupt a candidate, to drive him or her to serve their own interests or the interests of their campaign donors rather than the public good," reads an extract from a briefing on campaign finance reform by the National Conference of State Legislatures. "For instance, there is a belief that an unusually large financial contribution could influence the voting behavior of an elected official. Campaign finance laws are intended to reduce the potential for corruption, or even the appearance of corruption."

Louisiana is one of 39 states that set specific limits on how much an individual, a political party, a political action committee (or "PAC"; explained below), a corporation or a union may contribute to a particular candidate. The 11 remaining states place no limits or only minimal limits on contributions - Mississippi, for instance, only limits how much corporations may contribute to $1,000 per candidate per campaign; the state does not limit how much individuals or PAC's may give. 

The CFDA says "contributions, in-kind contributions [for food services, for example], loans, endorsements or guarantees on loans and transfers of funds are all counted towards the contribution limits." A candidate's personal funds, though, do not count toward the limits; they may contribute as much as they like to their own campaign efforts. 

Louisiana's limits on campaign contributions generally track the median for limits among the 39 states, according to the NCSL:

Campaign Finance Limits/Table from La. Ethics Admin. Program

Individuals, relatives of candidates, legal entities (including most corporations) and small PAC's may contribute up to $5,000 to candidates for a "major office" - statewide positions, as well as several judicial, education and other offices in the state's largest metropolitan areas. They're limited to contributing $2,500 to candidates for a "district office" (including seats in the state legislature and many official positions in mid-sized metro areas) and $1,000 to candidates for any other office.

"Big PAC's" have higher limits. Louisiana law defines a "big PAC" as a political action committee that has more than 250 members who contributed over $50 to the PAC in the preceding calendar year. Those groups may contribute up to $10,000 to major office candidates, $5,000 to district office candidates, and $2,000 to candidates for all other offices. 

Candidates themselves face limits, too, on the total contributions they may accept from PAC's for both primary and general elections. This aggregate limit is $80,000 per campaign for major office candidates, $60,000 for district office candidates and $20,000 for candidates for any other office.

The Democratic Party and the Republican Party face no such limits under Louisiana law - they may contribute whatever they wish to their partisan candidates. Knowing that helps explain why these two major American parties remain so critical in state and federal politics. 

Limited though they are, those contributions add up to a vast amount of money. The website followthemoney.org, a non-profit non-partisan watchdog, reports that $7,460,401 was contributed to all candidates and committees in 2012 alone. In 2011, an election year for Gov. Bobby Jindal and many more major and district offices, total contributions were $56,390,800. 

The CFDA also requires that most candidates report the campaign contributions they receive. All candidates for major or district office must file these disclosure reports. Candidates for other offices also must do so if their campaign expenditures (what they spend) are greater than $2,500, or they receive contributions from a single source in excess of $200 (not counting the candidate's own personal funds). 

PAC's must report how much money they receive in contributions as well. The CFDA defines a political action committee as "two or more persons, other than a husband and wife, and any corporation organized for the primary purpose of supporting or opposing one or more candidates, political parties, propositions, or recall efforts which has financial activity in excess of $500 within a calendar year in the name of the committee." That definition includes any corporation or group that "accepts payments for personal services related to an election or campaign in excess of $500 during a calendar year," in most circumstances. 

The CFDA sets strict and frequent deadlines for reporting contributions, both annually and at periods in relation to the dates of primary and general elections (180 days before an election, 40 days after an election, etc.) And the act spells out prohibited practices for campaign-related expenditures. For example, it expressly prohibits the use of campaign funds for any personal use unrelated to a political campaign or the holding of public office. 

It should be said, though, that state law define campaign expenditures is written broadly: "'Expenditure' means a purchase, payment, advance, deposit, or gift, of money or anything of value made for the purpose of supporting, opposing, or otherwise influencing the nomination or election of a person to public office, for the purpose of supporting or opposing a proposition or question submitted to the voters, or for the purpose of supporting or opposing the recall of a public officer, whether made before or after the election." Given such vague wording, some political observers have called for state lawmakers to clarify exactly what constitutes a legitimate campaign expenditure.

The Supervisory Committee on Campaign Finance Disclosure supervises Louisiana’s campaign finance statutes. The committee comprises the members of the state Board of Ethics, a body composed of seven governor’s appointees, two appointees by the Senate and two by the House of Representatives. The Ethics Administration Program enacts and enforces the Board of Ethics' policies and findings. But, with only a handful of staff in that agency, the state’s watchdog over campaign finance finds itself hard-pressed to thoroughly police those reports from candidates and PAC’s, let alone to punish violators.