Lanny Keller: Childcare is problem for everyone, but it shouldn’t open an ethics loophole

Senate President John A. Alario Jr., D-Westwego, speaks, flanked by Gov. John Bel Edwards, left, and New Orleans Saints owner Gayle Benson, right, at a press conference. The long-serving Alario is said to be the most powerful man in state government, with the possible exception of the governor. ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY TRAVIS SPRADLING

It’s a shame that Louisiana is one of the states with relatively few women in its Legislature, although that is changing over time, and we’ve had one woman reach the governorship, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.

That women are underrepresented in House and Senate should not, however, be a cover for opening further loopholes for special interests to fund candidates and legislators though exceptions to the ethics codes.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said in December he disagrees with the state Ethics Board’s decision to advise a state House candidate that she could face a penalty if she uses her campaign fund to pay for a baby sitter when she’s on the campaign trail.

“Unfortunately, there are costs that candidates have to incur to run for office, and also to hold office,” Edwards said during his recent call-in radio show. “Basic child care seems to me to be a reasonable expense. … I hope the Ethics Board will reconsider that decision.”

Childcare is a problem for those in public life, just as it can be expensive and difficult to organize for everybody else, whether single parents or a couple. This is not a women’s issue, however often child care management falls to mothers in the household. The governor and the Ethics Board members ought to reflect on how many expenses are now allowed to be charged to the campaign kitty: constituent gifts, athletic tickets, gasoline and mileage and car rentals, dinners and lunches for business — the latter broadly defined — and monthly cellphone bills.

There’s too much lifestyle spending allowed, and it is a subtly corrupting practice.

The money in campaign accounts comes in large part from lobbyists who make specific “asks” of lawmakers. Incumbents generally have safe, or at least safer, seats. But they never stop raising money, even if the lawmaker has little or no challenge to re-election. And of course, they never stop spending from the campaign fund either.

One of the most powerful legislators in Louisiana history, Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, raises tons of money compared to his colleagues and has spent a lot of it on currently lawful steak dinners. He also donates to worthy charitable causes and to help political allies, and he pays for trips to legislative seminars that other lawmakers may get paid for by national groups. But he would still be influential if he paid for his New York strips out of his own pocket. And if he runs again this fall, for the House (again), he won’t lack for campaign funds for his race.

Who will police this new loophole in the campaign finance law? And what is “basic” child care?

In theory, constituents can be annoyed enough to turn out a legislator living large off the campaign fund. Once, a justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court lost his race for re-election after such disclosures.

But all too often, the public has bought the old Edwin W. Edwards argument: It was stealing from the interest groups, not the people. Or from would-be casino licensees, or whomever was meeting the gambling budget that month.

Today’s Governor Edwards is wrong about this issue. The Ethics Board and the Legislature ought to tighten up today’s expenditures, or possibly cap them, instead of opening new ways for the interests to write checks for lawmakers.

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