Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Hollis French Returns $30,000 Leftover Funds To Campaign Contributors - Giving Money Back

I get press releases every day and usually take note, I might look into one and write a pot about the issue, but I seldom put them here on the blog.  But this one caught my eye and I followed up with a call to Hollis French.  Here's the story from the French office.

"ANCHORAGE: In an unusual move at the end of an unusual campaign Alaska State Senator Hollis French (D-Anchorage) announced today that he will be returning over $30,000 of excess campaign funds to his contributors.   Additionally, French intends to make contributions of $5000 to both the Boys and Girls Club of Alaska and the Alaska Democratic Party.  Refund checks to donors will start going out at the end of this week according to French.

 French's campaign for lieutenant governor came to an end with the formation of the Unity Ticket of Bill Walker and Byron Mallott.  He worked with the Alaska Public Offices Commission to make certain that the disposal of his campaign funds was according to law.

"It isn't very often that you send money back to contributors," said French, "but this was anything but an ordinary campaign.  The campaign funds I accumulated have to be distributed according to law and that's what I've done."

French will carry forward $50,000 of his campaign funds for a future campaign, which is allowed by statute."
So I called French to check on the details.  He's keeping the $50,000 he's allowed to roll over to future campaigns.  This doesn't happen too often, he said, because most campaigns don't have more than $50,000 at the end of the campaign.  But since his Lt. Governor candidacy ended when Democratic gubernatorial candidate Byron Mallot joined (as Lt. Gov candidate) with independent candidate Bill walker as the "unity ticket."  So, after the primary, he had money on-hand and soon nothing to spend it on.

 He's giving back about $30,000 to donors, but not  donations under $100.  The cost of repaying small donations wasn't worth it.  He'll have expenses of $500 - $1000 to figure out all the contributors and write an mail the checks.  Often candidates who have left over money give it to non- profits as French is doing with the Boys and Girls Club and the Democratic Party.  Giving back to donors is apparently rarer. The only precedent he could give me was that he'd heard that Charles Wohlforth had done that when he was on the Anchorage assembly.

I checked with Wohlforth who told me after his second Assembly campaign he had $5000 left over.  He wrote to the contributors and asked if they wanted:
  1. a pro rated return of their contribution.  For example, the campaign had spent 80% of the funds, then the contributors could get 20% back
  2. Wohlforth to spend the money for:
    1.  a copy machine and office supplies
    2.  a party for volunteers
There might have been another choice.  His donors overwhelmingly said to spend the money on the copy machine and office supplies. In Wohlforth's case, this was all money below the $50,000 threshold. 

Often a simple idea gets more complicated when you start to implement it.  (I know blog posts do all the time and I'm trying to keep this one from doing that any more than it has.)  How does French distinguish between the donors whose money he already spent and those he hadn't?  He didn't spend much Or will he give them a proportional amount back to reflect what the campaign had already spent and the $50,000 he was keeping for a future campaign?  I didn't think it out enough to ask those questions when I talked to him.

I know that someone will claim this is simply a political move to make him look good.  But you can say that about any good deed a politician makes.  But giving back money you didn't need is a gesture I believe in.  It can be more than a gesture.  I know that government agencies have a reputation for spending all the money they've been budgeted, even when they don't need to.  Their legitimate fear here, is that the legislative body will see they didn't spend what they got and will cut their budget the next year.  Legislatures need to reward, not punish agencies that use their money efficiently.  They also need to be able to carry over leftover funds for future needs.  It's hard to plan and do multi-year jobs well when your budget only goes for a year.

I personally have experience with this.  Back in the early 80's I helped set up a small non-profit to get the Municipal assembly meetings onto cable.  It was supposed to happen but Multivisions was waiting for the assembly to move to the library.  Our group found a young videographer who was willing to work cheap and a very small grant from the assembly to try out televising the meetings for six months.  Some assembly members had real doubts - both on the left and right.  Nobody would watch.  Only the rich had cable.  Assembly members would grandstand.  It only took about two weeks for all the assembly members to be won over.  They got people calling them up because of things they'd seen on cable.  People stopped them in the market because they'd seen them on television.  They learned that poor folks did have cable because it was much cheaper than taking a family to the movies or other entertainment.  And assembly members couldn't grandstand for six hours - they quickly forgot about the cameras and acted as they always did.

At the end of the six months, the assembly was ready to take over the funding and our group could bow out.  We had about $300 left over - we used all volunteer camera operators and only the guy who provided the equipment got a modest payment - and we presented the assembly with a check and just asked that they use it support public access to government through cable.  Now, except for the videographer, we all had other jobs and had no interest in keeping our organization alive.  So we didn't worry about next year's budget.

So, talk to your legislators about rewarding agencies - both government and non-profits - for using their money efficiently.  Let them give the surplus back without penalties.    Set up conditions where they can carry it over to the next year and certainly don't penalize them by cutting their budget the following year.

So Kudos to Hollis French for making this gesture.  Symbols do matter.  If readers know of other situations where left over money was voluntarily given back like this, please let me know.

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