MONTGOMERY — Legislation approved in the Alabama Statehouse gives more clarity and enforcement capabilities to the state’s campaign finance reporting laws, the bill’s sponsor and drafter said.

Senate Bill 241, approved last week and sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, includes recommendations from a panel of lawmakers and other officials that met in 2013 and 2014.

While rules have been in place on how politicians, and those who financially support them, gather and spend political contributions, there’s been concern no state agency is charged with ensuring compliance.

“We need someone to watch and hold officeholders and candidates accountable,” Orr recently said.

One benefit of the legislation is there now will be a non-partisan entity — the Alabama Ethics Commission — that can give opinions about the laws and compliance questions, Orr said.

His bill gives the ethics commission the power to interpret and enforce campaign finance laws, issue advisory opinions, issue penalties for inaccurate reports and hear appeals of penalties levied by the Alabama secretary of state or local probate office.

The Ethics Commission also will be able to investigate complaints and refer them for prosecution.

Currently, the secretary of state collects campaign reports, which during an election year are monthly and more frequent closer to election dates. But the secretary of state cannot fine candidates who file late or fail to report contributions.

Othni Lathram, director of the Alabama Law Institute, drafted the legislation.

“We want to have a law that people who want to follow the law aren’t going to violate by accident,” Lathram said.

He said the legislation:

  • amends current law to clarify when contributions are received and expenditures are made. A contribution must be reported either within 10 days after a check is received or at the time of deposit, whichever is earlier. Expenditures are made the day they are authorized.
  • codifies several Alabama attorney general opinions, including one that states candidates aren’t limited to writing checks for their expenditures. Debit cards and money market accounts are acceptable.
  • creates a process for closing a campaign account if a candidate dies or becomes incapacitated.
  • now requires that property worth more than $500 purchased by a campaign must be liquidated if the candidate doesn’t win. For example, if a candidate buys a car for use during a campaign, that candidate can’t keep the car when he or she loses.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Thomas Albritton on Tuesday said the five-member commission will issue formal opinions on campaign finance in the same manner it issues ethics opinions.

The new responsibility may mean new staffers in the office, including possibly an investigator, for which the bill provides, Albritton said.

“We are unsure where we’ll end up with our budget this year,” he said.

The Legislature ended its regular session last week without an adopted budget. Gov. Robert Bentley is expected to call lawmakers back to Montgomery later in the summer.

The ethics legislation has been sent to Bentley for his signature.

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Mary Sell covers state government for The Decatur Daily. She can be reached at msell@decaturdaily.com. Follow on Twitter @DD_MarySell.

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