What Exactly Can Candidates Do With Their Campaign Cash After Election Day?
With less than six weeks before the general election, candidates are burning through their campaign cash to make that final push to win. But, when the race ends, some still have money left in the bank.
So what are lawmakers allowed to do with that money?
The overriding rule seems pretty self-explanatory and fairly specific. Candidates and lawmakers may not spend campaign contributions for personal use or benefit: simple and straightforward. Still, according to Craig McDonald, the rule is broad and undefined.
“Our criticism of the looseness of the rule around campaign money has been that there really is no specific standard in what personal use means,” he says.
McDonald heads up Texans for Public Justice, a follow-the-money political watchdog. He says lax oversight on how campaign money is used is particularly concerning when you consider how much office holders spend in non-election years.
"The average House member in a non-campaign year spent about 30-thousand dollars in his or her campaign fund on other incidentals,” he says. “Not campaign ads, not consultants. But on travel, books, campaign contributions to others…a whole array of expenses.”
For state senate that amount jumped to $85,000. Statewide officials spent almost $400,000. But campaign finance attorney and former chair of the Texas Ethics Commission Ross Fischer contends there's plenty of help to make sure lawmakers are spending that money correctly.
“There's a lot of guidance out there from the Texas Ethics commission because people over the years have requested advisory opinions about whether a certain expenditure constitutes a conversion to personal use,” he says.
And, sure enough, a quick trip to the Ethics Commission website brings us to a long list of commission opinions on how lawmakers can and can't spend campaign funds.
“It seems like everyone wants to pay for their dry cleaning once they're elected,” Fischer says. “So that's one issue that I remember coming up over and over was, can I now pay for my dry-cleaning with my campaign funds. And the answer to that is no.”
Meals in Austin not connected with state business, family recreation or entertainment, and medical needs are also on the no-go list. The "permissible use" list is about five times as long. Can a candidate pay for their spouse to travel with them on official business? Yes. If you need Spanish lessons because your district has a large Hispanic population that can be paid for with campaign donations, too. How much can you spend on those lessons of that plane ticket? That’s where things get fuzzy again. McDonald and Texans for Public Justice say problems arise because there is no oversight on how much is spent.
“Yes you can use your campaign money to fly to a conference,” he says. “Do you have to fly coach, or can you charter a jet? You can do both! And there's no one really overseeing it.”
Same thing goes for car rental or other items used in official capacity. Why rent a Ford Focus, when it's perfectly legal spend campaign money on the Mercedes coup.
“The real problem with this is that lifestyle money is coming from special interests who want favors out of you,” says McDonald. “That money is essentially going right into your pocket. When you can use that campaign money not to buy a campaign ad, but to buy a case wine or go out to dinner every night, that's a real personal benefit to you. And that's what makes the system so pernicious.”
McDonald says he and other campaign finance reformers have been trying to get tougher restrictions through the legislature for a while now. But, he says, many lawmakers don’t seem eager to change a system that benefits them.