Editor’s Note: On Nov. 14, Rep. Jon Burns was nominated to become Speaker of the House for Georgia’s next legislative session starting in January 2023.
In Georgia, it’s common for politicians of both major parties to collect more campaign money than they need to get re-elected. It’s also common for elected officials to give away leftovers to boost colleagues and, at times, promote their own political ambitions.
Good examples of such “regifting” are the contributions by House Majority Leader and Effingham County Rep. Jon Burns, R-Newington, who has wound up, year after year, with more excess than most.
Since becoming majority leader in 2015, the popular agribusiness owner has raised more than $1 million while facing virtually no opposition for re-election. Having little need of a political war chest, Burns instead has given away nearly a quarter-million dollars to other campaigns, taking advantage of a state law that allows politicians to help like-minded candidates cross their own election finish line.
Burns has provided $238,700 to 108 Republican candidates for the Georgia House of Representatives in the last five years, an analysis by The Current shows. Beneficiaries include incumbents and new legislators with the potential to bolster his influence within the chamber’s leadership and at the statehouse. House Republicans will decide in November whether to give Burns two more years as their caucus leader.
Supporters say the law allows politicians to build alliances and pass legislation. And advocates for more campaign finance transparency say the law allows a process that deepens the already murky connections between money and influence because it can be used to skirt campaign contribution limits in a campaign system already awash with cash.
During her more than six years as House Democratic leader, former Rep. Stacey Abrams made about $224,000 in political donations from her campaign fund, according to The Current’s analysis of her campaign disclosures.
The practice can obscure the original source of campaign money and thereby make it tougher to enforce limits on contributions from individual donors, said Pete Quist, research director of the nonprofit, non-partisan National Institute on Money in Politics. Georgia law does not allow contributions that are anonymous or made by one donor on behalf of another.
“If a candidate committee begins to act as a pass-through for other candidates there is the possibility that contribution limits would be more difficult to enforce if donors are making contributions through another candidate’s committee,” said Pete Quist, research director of the nonprofit, non-partisan National Institute on Money in Politics.
Burns did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment about his campaign’s donations to others.
Practice spans both political parties
Some 31 states, including Georgia, allow intra-campaign donations, a practice that both Democrats and Republicans avidly use in an age when state party leaders are expected to raise huge amounts of money.
In Georgia, a contributor may give up to $2,800 to a legislative candidate per election. The average amount that the Burns campaign regifted to candidates since 2015 was $1,320, according to campaign finance records analyzed by The Current.
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Burns has risen through the state Republican ranks since his election in 2004 to become one of Georgia’s most proficient politicians in raising money – and regifting it.
The Newington native has built a reputation as a responsive public servant with staunch conservative positions. Colleagues praise his integrity, dedication and work ethic.
Since becoming majority leader, donations to Burns’ re-election campaigns have skyrocketed, many from lobbyists and special interests seeking a friendly ear in House leadership. His top donors are from the healthcare, insurance and pharmaceutical sector, which have kicked in a combined $221,600 in the last five years, according to campaign finance records.
That time frame is also when Burns’ most active campaign finance regifting began. In races in 2016 and 2018, most of Burns’s spending favored incumbents facing opposition or challengers seeking to knock off an incumbent Democrat.
The balance shifted during the 2019-20 campaign cycle. Burns has backed 31 House members in contested races but also gave to 26 others who wound up running unopposed or chose not to seek another term. Most of those donations came in January 2019, barely eight weeks after Burns was re-elected majority leader.
Donations law has faced challenges
The law allowing this tidal wave of money to slosh through state political races reaches back to at least 1986.
However, in 2003, Georgia Republicans tried to ban the practice.
That year newly elected Gov. Sonny Perdue pushed to ban the regifting of campaign donations. Perdue acted shortly after an election cycle in which two Democrats vying to become speaker of the House steered more than $230,000 to House colleagues. Rep. Terry Coleman, who gave about $37,000 more than his rival, won.
The Republican-led state Senate passed Perdue’s ethics proposal unanimously.
“If you’re out having fundraisers not for yourself, but just so you can funnel it to other candidates, that’s artificial,” then-Senate Majority Leader Eric Johnson of Savannah said at the time. “It gets us all hung up with these constant efforts to raise money.”
However, the bill died in the Democratic-led House without coming to a floor vote.
Legislators from both parties tried several times over the next eight years to restrict intra-campaign donations. But their efforts failed to gain traction.
In 2010 former Rep. Wendell Willard, a Republican from Sandy Springs, filed an ethics bill that would have capped a campaign’s donations to other candidates at $10,000 per election cycle. The intent, Willard said, was to discourage a handful of legislators from “buying influence” by spreading excess campaign funds around. Signing on as co-sponsors were 40 other members of the House, including 22 Republicans – but not Burns.
Willard’s bill was superseded, though, by one filed by House Speaker David Ralston that did not address regifting but instead the conflicts of interest arising from his predecessor’s alleged affair with a lobbyist. “It was my view…that campaign finance was not part of that problem,” Ralston said at the time.
The last legislator to address the issue was Sen. Steve Henson, a Democrat from Stone Mountain, who filed a bill in 2011 with a provision identical to Willard’s.
“That bill got no hearing,” Henson said. “The Republicans weren’t interested.”
Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia prohibit or limit donations from one campaign to another.
In 2020, it’s unclear whether Georgia Democrats or Republicans have any interest in addressing the issue again. State Democratic Chair Nikema Williams did not respond to a request for comment. GOP Chair David Shafer said intra-campaign donations have a legitimate function.
To Shafer, once the top Republican in the Senate, a legislative leader’s role includes helping other members by raising money or making campaign appearances. “When I was first elected to the State Senate, the older members helped me, and as I moved up the leadership ladder, I helped the newer members,” he said.
While Shafer voted for the 2003 bill, he said other language in existing law suggested then that contribution limits did not apply to candidate-to-candidate transfers.
“Once it was clarified that those limits applied to transfers,” he said, “the impetus to prohibit them dissipated.”
The office of Gov. Brian Kemp, who also voted for the bill as a freshman senator, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Individual donors left with uncertainty
To political scientists interested in more oversight of campaign finance donations, the downside to continued regifting of political donations is clear.
Individual donors from a politician’s home district may not realize their money would be going to a different candidate or cause, and regulators may find it tougher to identify donations that exceed statutory limits, according to Quist of the National Institute on Money in Politics.
Additionally, politicians may end up being beholden to their state party leaders, instead of their constituents.
“You remember who gave to you,” University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said. “If they ask you to do something that promotes their own ambitions, you’re probably going to say yes.”
Cover image: https://www.lesfinances.ca/ via Unsplash