Beware of Misusing State Resources During the Campaign Season

by Julie Pelegrin

Unless you’re living under a rock on another planet, you’re well aware that this year is a big campaign year. Throughout the summer and next fall, people will be campaigning and voting on several candidates and ballot questions. Before the session ends, let’s review the restrictions on using state resources for political campaigns.

Use of State Resources
Let’s be clear: It is improper and unethical for a legislator or an employee of the General Assembly to use state equipment and state services such as offices, telephones, internet access accounts, copiers, fax machines, computers, postage, supplies, and staff time for campaign purposes. Using state equipment or services for these purposes potentially leads to both civil and criminal liability. This means state telephones, computers, copiers, etc., which are to be used primarily for business purposes at all times, should never be used for political purposes or activity. Questions about material being copied should be referred to the Chief Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate, whichever is appropriate.

Political Activity v. Legislative Activity
In determining whether a legislator or staff can use state resources during legislative time for an activity, it’s important to distinguish between “political activity” and “legislative activity.”

Political activity means any form of campaigning or electioneering, including:

  • Attending or arranging for political meetings;
  • Transporting candidates or other persons who are engaged in campaigning or electioneering;
  • Distributing campaign material, whether it’s literature, political guide cards, placards or signs;
  • Soliciting or canvassing for campaign funds;
  • Developing or distributing opinion polls or surveys that are not related to legislative business; or
  • Any other form of political work.

Legislative activity means activities that relate exclusively to the legislator’s official duties:

  • Introducing, debating, taking testimony, amending, and voting on legislation;
  • Discussing state issues that may be the subject of legislation; and
  • Other types of policymaking.

Based on this distinction, a legislator and a legislative employee cannot engage in political activities within the State Capitol or on legislative time. Nonpartisan legislative staff do not engage in political activity, other than voting, at any time. The partisan staff employed by the House of Representatives and the Senate cannot engage in political activities while in the State Capitol or during regular work hours.

Additionally, a legislator may use legislative staff and state resources during regular business hours within the Capitol building to arrange town hall meetings, so long as the meetings relate exclusively to the legislator’s official duties and legislative activities and the legislator and staff do not engage in election campaign activity relating to the election of a candidate or the support or defeat of a ballot measure at the meeting. It is important to ensure that a town hall meeting avoids even the appearance of being a campaign event; handing out campaign or other election materials at a town hall meeting is probably not a good idea.

Maintaining a Website
Another potentially grey area arises when a legislator uses legislative staff to help maintain the legislator’s website. If the legislator’s website predominantly consists of information relating to legislative activities, he or she may use legislative staff and state resources to maintain the website. However, the website may include some content that could be interpreted as being political or related to a campaign. If legislative staff is using state time and resources to maintain material on the website that is arguably political or campaign related, questions may arise with regard to these materials. In this case, the legislator should consider not using state resources to maintain the website.

Political Contributions
The General Assembly – including any persons employed by the General Assembly – cannot make a contribution in any form to a person’s campaign for public office. A contribution includes anything of value that is given to a candidate, directly or indirectly, to promote the candidate’s nomination, retention, recall, or election. This includes in-kind contributions in the form of services. Also, the General Assembly and its staff cannot expend public money or make any contributions to urge voters to vote for or against a ballot measure. The intent of these restrictions is to ensure that the General Assembly and its employees do not use public resources to persuade voters during an election.

Partisan employees of the House or the Senate can participate in candidates’ campaign activities or issue campaigns on their own time outside of the Capitol building. Under the Senate employee handbook, Senate employees who take time away from work for political and campaign-related activities cannot use annual, sick, or other personal leave and will not be paid by the Senate for time spent away from work engaging in these activities.

A Senator cannot send out mailings at the state’s expense unless the item being mailed is in response to a constituent request or comment. Similarly, a Representative can send a mailing at the state’s expense only if it is generated in response to a request for information. Legislators must use their campaign funds for campaign mailings.

Deciding what is legislative and what is political is not clear in many cases. For more information on how state resources should and should not be used, you may want to read the OLLS memo: Use of House and Senate legislative staff, equipment, and resources. Also, we encourage legislators to contact the OLLS with their specific questions concerning the appropriate use of legislative staff and state resources.