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The Louisiana State Capitol

A state House candidate has been advised that she could be penalized if she uses her campaign fund to pay for a babysitter when she's hitting up fundraisers, forums and other stops on the campaign trail.

Morgan Lamandre, an attorney who is running for a Baton Rouge-area House seat next year, received the opinion from the state Ethics Board last week that appears to set a higher standard than candidates have been held to in the past on an issue that has recently drawn national attention.

"The use of campaign funds to pay for child care expenses you would incur as a result of your participation in campaign events and activities is not an allowable expenditure," the board concluded in a 5-2 vote.

Lamandre, a Democrat, said she was surprised by the opinion, which was drafted after a long hearing on her request, as a different slate of Ethics Board members in 2000 had issued an opinion that child care expenses could be covered by campaign funds when "they are related to your campaign" as long as the child care provider wasn't the candidates spouse or minor child.

Several candidates have included child care among their campaign expenses in the years since, including former Baton Rouge Metro Council member and ex-state lawmaker Darrell Ourso and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy. Both are Republicans, though Kennedy was a Democrat in 2000 when he noted $580 from his campaign account went toward "child care service during Los Angeles trip."

Lamandre and her husband both work full-time and have two young children, ages six and one.

"I thought it was something that could be helpful to us," she said.

Anyone affected by the opinion — any elected official or state or local candidate in Louisiana — can ask the board to reconsider its ruling.

"What I would hope is that legislators, candidates, or potential candidates that are affected by this, including men, would ask for reconsideration," Lamandre said. "It's an issue that affects both women and men."

In her request for guidance from the state Ethics Board, Lamandre wrote that because state law does not explicitly allow for child care expenses to be paid out of campaign funds, she was "requesting an opinion to find out what circumstances, if any, may child care expenses be paid out of campaign funds."

"When my husband is available he will be responsible for watching our children during the campaign but because of his work demands and frequent travel he will not always be available," she wrote. "Additionally there are times when I may benefit from my husband's attendance at campaign events, child care will be required during these situations and since we do not have family that live nearby additional child care expenses will be incurred."

Before her hearing last week, Lamandre was notified by an Ethics Board attorney that, based on the 2000 opinion, the board was being advised to say that campaigns could spend money on child care if its directly linked to campaign duties, she said.

The Ethics Board, which levies fines against candidates that improperly use campaign dollars, is not bound to prior opinions or staff advice, Ethics Board chair Bob McAnelly noted.

"We're dealt the cards, all we can do is read the statutes and attempt to come up with, under the circumstances of a request, try to apply the law to the facts," he said. "We just didn't think it was an appropriate use."

He said he didn't think that Lamandre's request, which asked the board to identify when campaign funds could be used, was specific enough.

"What we tried to tell her is, 'Give us a concrete example,'" McAnelly said. "Give us a specific time and date."

It's possible that the Legislature could move to explicitly address child care in the state's campaign finance laws.

Lamandre would have the option to take the case to district court if she did use her campaign account for child care and was fined, but she said she's not interested in going that route.

"That's not what I'm about. I'm a very preventative or 'We just need to fix the law' kind of person," she said. "I do believe it already is in the law."

The issue came onto the national stage after the Federal Election Commission earlier this year ruled that congressional candidates can use campaign funds for child care.

Emerge Louisiana vice chair Jennifer Greene said it's an issue women, in particular, have been tackling in other states as more seek public office.

Emerge is a national network of progressive groups encouraging women as candidates. Lamandre is an Emerge Louisiana alum.

"This is something that women around the country have worked with their state ethics boards on," Greene said.

The Louisiana board's decision that Lamandre may not use her campaign account to pay someone to watch her children was "an interesting turn of events," Greene said.

"For years, we've had a policy of candidates using these funds," she said.

Louisiana, historically, has had few female legislators, compared to other states. About 14.6 percent of Louisiana's legislative seats currently are held by women. Only Oklahoma and Wyoming have smaller shares of female lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures' 2018 figures.

"We don't want to discourage somebody from running for office," McAnelly said.

Both Lamandre and McAnelly described a hypothetical situation that was discussed at the hearing: If she and her husband were to go to dinner and a voter stopped to inquire about her campaign or she talked to a donor, would she then view it as a campaign activity and seek to have some of the child care costs covered by her campaign?

"I told them, 'No,'" she said. "They kept saying things about abuse, and opening the door to this being abused."

Peppi Bruneau, an Ethics Board member from New Orleans, said he doesn't believe existing state law allows campaign dollars to go to child care.

"It's just not within the ambit of the campaign finance law," he said.

He also defended the board's 5-2 vote that reversed the position of the Ethics Board staff.

"It happens very often," Bruneau said. "I don't find it unusual at all."

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.