Alford: The legacies and loopholes in campaign finances

Those who say you can’t take it with you clearly haven’t met state Sen. Francis Thompson, the Legislature’s second-longest serving member. The Delhi Democrat also enjoys a special designation in regard to our state laws that regulate how candidates can spend certain campaign dollars.

Yes, at age 77, the grandfatherly Thompson has a grandfathered status.

To understand his special situation you’ll need to know that this quick-witted legislator has been fundraising and burning up campaign trails since he was first seated as a member of the state House in 1975. He moved to the Senate in 2008, but has always embraced a slow and steady approach to fundraising over the decades.

d”Real slow, with a little bit here and a little bit there. That’s how I’ve done it,” Thompson told LaPolitics. “I raise it that way and I spend it that way. Plus, I don’t live out of my account.”

Thompson, who’s on his way out of the Senate and is now running for his old House seat, currently has $893,000 in cash on hand, of which $659,000 is being held in investments that garnered a return of $8,000 last calendar year. He also has $16,250 sitting in a leadership PAC.

In case you didn’t know it, that’s a heck of a lot dough. For context, consider that House Speaker Taylor Barras, who holds the top position in the lower chamber, has $62,000 in his own leadership PAC and $152,000 in his regular campaign account.

Barras, of course, has only been in office for 11 years. Thompson has been running around the Capitol for 44 years, so longevity has certainly been key to his fundraising prowess. In 2010, for instance, Thompson filed a campaign finance report showing $484,000 in the bank, which is still impressive. But not as impressive as the fact that his the annual tallies have grown larger with each passing year, culminating in the $893,000 campaign kitty that was disclosed to the Ethics Administration last month.

As for his spending habits, Thompson averages about $32,000 in expenditures each non-election year, based on his campaign finance reports. In 2018, his average expense was $190, and his largest was $3,400 for tickets to LSU athletic events. Only five other expenditures, out of 167, exceeded $1,000.

Yet what truly sets Thompson apart is the $120,000 or so that he raised prior to July 15, 1988. State law (RS 18:1505.2) stipulates that the pre-1988 cash, which Thompson has segregated in his campaign finance account, is not subject to campaign finance regulations. That means Thompson and anyone else with such lingering dollars can treat them however they choose — they can even use the money for personal reasons.

“I was engaged in that debate and discussion,” Thompson said of the campaign finance laws that were passed when he was a House member. “I wanted there to be guidelines and a watchdog. And I’ve always endeavored to do good things with the money people have donated to my campaign.”

Only two other state legislators, Senate President John Alario of Westwego and Sen. Greg Tarver of Shreveport, could find themselves in similar situations. Tarver, a Democrat who served in the upper chamber from 1984 to 2004 before his most recent legislative reincarnation, has $178,000 in his campaign finance account. He did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Elected prior to Thompson in January 1972, Alario is the Legislature’s longest serving member who knows a bit about fundraising as well. Alario has $241,000 in his campaign finance account and $319,000 in his leadership PAC.

But what about dollars raised prior to July 15, 1988? Not a shot, Alario said when asked, noting that he doesn’t share the same kind of patience as Thompson. “Francis was a better accountant than I was,” he said with a laugh. “I spent that pre-1988 money a long time ago.”

Jeremy Alford publishes LaPolitics Weekly, a newsletter on Louisiana politics, at LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter, or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.