By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
Tuesday is the start of the legislative session and a short “blackout” window in which candidates for state office can’t raise funds while lawmakers are meeting in Montgomery.
State law says legislators “may not accept, solicit, or receive contributions during the period when the Legislature is convened in session” except “within 120 days of any primary, runoff, or general election…”
While primaries for statewide office have previously been in early June, this year’s contest is May 24. That means the blackout will start Tuesday and end Jan. 24. The legislative session can last up to 15 weeks, but during election years, incumbent lawmakers often like to get out of Montgomery and on the campaign trail earlier than that.
In theory, the window keeps sitting legislators from accepting money while they’re voting on bills. In practice, the window now only covers about two of the possible 15 weeks of session.
“It’s just stupid,” Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, chairman of the House Ethics and Campaign Finance Committee, said about the two-week blackout.
He said the window should be changed to either cover the entire session or be eliminated completely.
“It’s an arbitrary thing that people use to play gotcha with and it’s a nuisance that confuses things,” he said.
Changing the window would require legislation.
“Every time the blackout period comes up, someone says, ‘We need to change this,’” Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said. “But nothing ever happens.”
Merrill said the even shorter period this year may prompt more conversations.
Ball also said he thinks the temporary stop to fundraising hurts challengers more than it hurts sitting lawmakers.
“The incumbents will get their money,” he said. “It’s the challengers who need every minute to raise funds.”
Ball, who is not running for reelection this year, said lawmakers don’t want to change the law because they don’t want to be perceived as “watering down” ethics laws.
“Just make sure everything is reported and documented, transparency is the important thing,” he said.
Regardless of how short the window in Alabama is, it’s the law, Merrill said. His office will have tutorials for candidates at 9 a.m. Jan. 13 at the Capitol Auditorium. A tutorial for lobbyists and associations will follow at 10 a.m.
Merrill has previously advised candidates to deactivate any webpages that accept contributions online to avoid inadvertently accepting funds. The fundraising freeze does not apply to officials serving at the county or local levels.
According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, 29 states, including Alabama, have some restriction on campaign contributions during sessions. In 14 of those states, the restrictions apply only to contributions by lobbyists.