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Legislators say 2007 may be year to pass PAC-to-PAC ban

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — State Rep. Jeff McLaughlin says he has felt like “Linus in the pumpkin patch” the last six years, watching time and again as his proposed ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers cleared the House with great fanfare only to quietly die in the Senate.

While Linus from the “Peanuts” comic strip spent Halloween night for years in the pumpkin patch without seeing “the Great Pumpkin,” McLaughlin and other legislators believe that public sentiment, as well as leadership changes in the Senate, may make this the year the ban is enacted into law.

Shell game

The practice of transferring campaign contributions from one political action committee, or PAC, to another has made it impossible for voters to tell where a candidate is getting the money to run his or her campaign.

McLaughlin, an outspoken advocate of election reform, said PAC-to-PAC transfers creates a “shell game.”

Here’s how it works: A candidate’s campaign finance report filed with the secretary of state’s office shows he or she received a large donation from a PAC, usually with a name filled with initials that mean nothing to most voters. A check of the PAC’s finance report finds a large donation from another PAC.

McLaughlin said it often takes at least several steps of going from report to report to find the actual source of the contribution. Even then, he said it can be impossible to know for sure because some PACS receive money from various sources.

“This bill won’t cure the problem, but it’s a significant first step. It will help people know where the money is coming from that supports candidates,” McLaughlin said.

Died in Senate

For the past two years, a strict version of the bill that would ban all PAC-to-PAC transfers with no exceptions has been approved by a Senate committee, but died on the chamber’s work agenda without coming up for a vote on the Senate floor.

Some legislators believe the recent change in Senate leadership — which lifted Sen. Hinton Mitchem, D-Union Grove, a friend of McLaughlin, to senate president pro tem — could mean easier sailing for the proposal.

Also, it was endorsed during last year’s campaign by Democrats, Republicans and Gov. Bob Riley.

“I have a good feeling about the PAC-to-PAC transfers bill,” said Mitchem, who like McLaughlin is from Marshall County in northeast Alabama. “It’s fresh on everybody’s minds how much it costs to run their campaigns.”

Candidates in at least five Senate races spent more than $1 million to win election last year, while one House race cost almost $1 million.

“It’s gotten to where people can hardly afford to run, even in local races,” Mitchem said.

He said he expects the PAC-to-PAC ban to get a vote in the Senate this session or next year at the latest.

“I feel like it’s got the best chance I’ve seen in the last five years,” he said.

Michael Ciamarra, vice president of the Birmingham-based Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, said the legislation should pass this year since representatives from all political spectrums promised to vote for it.

“Banning PAC-to-PAC transfers is part of Governor Riley’s ‘Plan 2010,’ ‘the Republican Handshake with Alabama’ and the Democrats’ ‘Covenant with the Future,”’ Ciamarra said. He said he hopes the bill passes early in the session so lawmakers can keep a promise made during the campaign.

He said he hopes the move toward ethics reform in the U.S. Congress will encourage the Legislature to pass the ban along with other ethics and campaign reforms.

“This bill will show explicitly where the money is coming from. You won’t have to chase around numerous political rabbit trails to find it,” Ciamarra said.

Several legislators also predict this would be the year they pass the ban.

“It will be a priority for us again this year,” said House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia.

“I think even the lobbyists are tired of that,” state Sen. Charles Bishop, R-Jasper, said of PAC-to-PAC transfers.

Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, one of the state’s largest contributors to election campaigns, said he would be delighted if the Legislature banned the practice.

“I think people have the right to know who supports which candidates,” Hubbert said. He said AEA lists most of its contributions as coming from its PAC, A-Vote, and only transfers contributions to another PAC when a candidate requests it.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to hide contributions,” Hubbert said. “We’d be delighted if no one transferred money to other PACs.”

State Rep. Neal Morrison, D-Cullman, said he believes state residents will put pressure on their legislators to pass the ban.

“Every time I gave a speech to a large crowd during the campaign this is an issue that was brought up. People don’t like it when you hide the source of where money is coming from and a lot of us promised to do something about it,” Morrison said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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