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How lawmakers are spending campaign money and why we should care 

Once upon a political time, there was the legend of the legislative railcar

  It's just one of those stories I've heard, with variations, since the late 1980s — beginning when I was a kid following my sister around while she worked for the Rural Caucus, continuing into my brief stint clerking for the House Appropriations Committee coming out of high school and lasting throughout the past 12 years of covering the Capitol.

  As the tale goes, there were a number of legislative sessions, some time ago, during which controversial train-related bills were introduced repeatedly. In response, rail lobbyists would have a railroad car pulled into Baton Rouge brimming with big, juicy steaks, liquor and other attractants.

  It became such a luscious perk that, when the controversy ran dry, some lawmakers allegedly decided to gin up new policy proposals just to keep the Good Times Express on schedule, whether the bills were needed or not. Alas, the gig was up almost as soon as it began as lobbyists figured out what was what.

  Lawmakers had to settle for landlocked parties and run-of-the-mill steak dinners after that. The truncated good times continued until 2008, when the Legislature, at the urging of Gov. Bobby Jindal, slapped a $50 limit on lobbyist-sponsored meals. That threshold has crept up a bit over the years, because it's tied to the Consumer Price Index, and lawmakers no longer can accept almost anything of economic value.

  Now attention is turning to how Louisiana politicians spend money collected by their campaigns, with a recent Times-Picayune/Fox 8 series revealing millions shelled out on fancy meals, sports tickets, auto leases, hotels and more between 2009 and 2013. What we're seeing is lawmakers spending campaign money on items that used to be provided by lobbyists — an unintended consequence of the 2008 "ethics" session.

  Noticeably absent from the series are complaints from donors. And while the news outlets' work is commendable, there hasn't exactly been a clarion call for action from the public.

  That's because most high-dollar donors don't contribute money with specific expectations of how it will be spent. They buy tickets for fundraisers and write checks to gain access and bend influential ears. If they see a problem with how their donations are spent, it seems logical that donors would self-correct, just like the railroad folks did. That's not happening.

  Moreover, outrage from average citizens appears muted because most folks don't fork over their hard-earned money to politicians (except via taxes), and many more surely realize that questionable campaign expenditures don't involve taxpayer dollars. It's mostly money moving from the pocketbooks of the wealthy to the political coffers of the powerful.

  So what's to be done? There's something to be said of the state's current reporting requirements, for without them we would have no idea that politicians are buying wedding gifts and rounds of golf with their campaign contributions.

  The most likely scenario, which has been batted around in recent years, entails clearly delineating what constitutes acceptable uses of campaign money. Maybe give donors a choice of how they want their money spent, just like they can choose to have their donations assigned to the primary or runoff.

  Another alternative, one being sought by a Super PAC that's supporting U.S. Sen. David Vitter's run for governor, involves lifting the cap on maximum contributions and allowing a free-for-all fundraising environment to develop. As long as the reporting requirements are enhanced, it would permit us to see which politicians can be bought, rented or easily impressed by the almighty dollar.

  As if we don't already know.

  Allowing outside groups to spend unlimited money promoting candidates allows candidates to spend campaign money for other items. This could easily lead to another increase in luxury spending, as happened in the wake of the 2008 ethics session.

  Too many people don't know or don't care about what's going on with campaign contributions. That is a shame. When the public does become passionate about an issue — any issue — politicians almost always pay more attention to the uprising than they accord top donors at a fundraiser. And it doesn't cost citizens a dime.

  Without that kind of civic involvement, however, the political trains will continue to run on time.

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