The political season in North Carolina officially started this week as candidates began filing for statewide offices and the General Assembly. That means the fundraisers are already in full swing too with candidates raising money as fast as they can to meet the ever increasing costs of running for office.
Folks running for the General Assembly may face some new questions this year when they are asking people for contributions, thanks to recent controversies about how some politicians are spending their campaign funds.
News accounts have revealed that a handful of legislators are basically using their campaign donations to pay themselves, though that’s not the way they report it on their campaign finance reports.
Instead it’s often listed as a credit card transaction for “campaign expenses,” which could mean everything from increasing their mileage reimbursement rate for their trips to General Assembly or buying suits or paying for rent for the months they are in Raleigh or even paying themselves or spouses for campaign work, whatever that means.
Lawmakers don’t get paid much at all, $13,951 a year, but they do get roughly $3,000 a month for expenses when they are in session plus 29 cents a mile for one round trip to Raleigh every week.
That still doesn’t add up to nearly enough compensation for the work they do, but the solution some lawmakers have come up with, using campaign funds to make up the difference, is not the answer.
Rep. Kelly Hastings told the News & Observer that the 29 cent mileage rate is just “not feasible” so he uses campaign funds to reimburse himself at the federal rate of 57.5 cents a mile.
Hastings could introduce legislation to change the reimbursement rate to track the federal rate but instead he decided instead to allow campaign contributors to pay for his mileage and other expenses in Raleigh, even though he already gets money for the cost of coming to town every week.
There have been several news stories in recent months about lawmakers who failed to itemize their expenses.
House Speaker Tim Moore amended his campaign reports after auditors at the State Board of Elections raised questions and Senator Fletcher Hartsell now faces a potential criminal investigation after the State Board found that he used campaign funds for personal expenses.
The News & Observer reported that seven lawmakers reimbursed themselves for what they said was campaign spending without disclosing the details.
Some of the lawmakers were forthcoming about what the spending paid for and others, like Senator Warren Daniel, said they would only disclose the details if the State Board of Elections forced them to.
There are really two issues involved. The first one is transparency. Voters deserve to know who is giving politicians money and how they are spending it. That means an itemized list every time they file a campaign finance report.
The vast majority of legislators already submit details of their expenses. The rest of them should follow suit and shouldn’t wait for the State Board of Elections to audit their reports before they do.
And we need a simpler way to pay legislators and reimburse them for legitimate expenses. They need to make more money—it may take a bipartisan commission to make that happen—and they need to be paid by the taxpayers they are working for, not by the folks who are contributing money to their campaigns.
Until then, the State Board of Elections needs to enforce the current laws about disclosure. And all legislators need to follow them whether they like it or not.