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Official Opinion 2001-4

Official Opinion 2001-4

May 18, 2001
To: 

Executive Secretary
State Ethics Commission

Re: 

Campaign contributions prior to January 1, 2001, should not be counted against the new election cycle contribution limits set forth in the revised version of O.C.G.A. § 21-5-41, which became effective on that date.

During the 2000 session of the General Assembly, substantial revisions were made to article 2A of the Ethics in Government Act dealing with campaign contributions. O.C.G.A. §§ 21-5-40 to -45 (Supp. 2000). The permissible dollar amounts of contributions, as well as the time periods over which such contributions can be made, were both altered. Id. You have asked my opinion on how these legislative changes, which became effective on January 1, 2001, should be accounted for by candidates. It is my opinion that campaign contributions prior to January 1, 2001, should not be counted against the new election cycle contribution limits set forth in the revised version of O.C.G.A. § 21-5-41 (Supp. 2000).

Prior to January 1, 2001, the General Assembly had provided that a candidate for statewide elected office could receive maximum contributions of $1,000 in non-election years and $5,000 in election years from persons, partnerships, corporations, political committees, or political parties. 1994 Ga. Laws 258, 266-73. Candidates for other than statewide elected office could receive contributions of up to $1,000 in non-election years and $2,000 in election years from these same entities. Id.

The changes enacted in 2000 affected not only the maximum contributions which can properly be given to a candidate but also changed the time periods over which these contributions are accounted for and reported. The Ethics in Government Act now provides that:

No person, corporation, political committee, or political party shall make, and no candidate or campaign committee shall receive from any such entity, contributions to any candidate for state-wide elected office which in the aggregate for an election cycle exceed:

(1) Five thousand dollars for a primary election; (2) Three thousand dollars for a primary run-off election; (3) Five thousand dollars for a general election; (4) Three thousand dollars for a general election run-off.

O.C.G.A. § 21-5-41(a) (Supp. 2000). The same type of provisions are also made for candidates for other than state-wide elected office, except those contribution levels are set at $2,000 for primary and general elections and $1,000 for primary and general run-off elections. O.C.G.A. § 21-5-41(b) (Supp. 2000).

An election cycle, which is applied separately for each elective office, consists of the “period from the day following the date of an election or appointment of a person to elective public office through and including the date of the next such election of a person to the same public office . . . .” O.C.G.A. § 21-5-3 (8.1) (Supp. 2000). Thus, while in past years the maximum amount of contributions was determined by calendar year and by whether or not it was an election year, contribution limits are now determined by an election cycle.

Your specific question concerns whether contributions prior to January 1, 2001, under the election year/non-election year format should be counted against the new contribution limits for an election cycle set forth in the amended version of O.C.G.A. § 21-5-41 (Supp. 2000). For example, a candidate for any public office could have collected contributions prior to January 1, 2001, which, at the time the contributions were given, were to be accounted for on the basis of the election year/non-election year time-frame previously provided under the law. However, those same contributions also now fall within the newly effective “election cycle” method of accounting for contributions. Additionally, a candidate could have collected contributions in one amount which were clearly authorized under the pre-2001 dollar limits, but which are not consistent with the newly effective dollar limits currently in effect. For the reasons stated below, it is my opinion that the General Assembly intended that candidates for public office do not need to account for these overlapping statutory time frames and amounts. Candidates may meet their accounting and reporting requirements by following the pre-2001 statutory requirements for their pre-2001 contributions, while contributions made and received after January 1, 2001, must be accounted for and reported in accordance with the newly effective statutory limits outlined above.

In construing the amendments to O.C.G.A. §§ 21-5-40 to -45, it must be acknowledged that “‘[a]ll statutes are presumed to be enacted by the legislature with full knowledge of the existing condition of the law and with reference to it . . . .’” McPherson v. City of Dawson, 221 Ga. 861, 862 (1966) (quoting Botts v. Southeastern Pipe-Line Co., 190 Ga. 689, 700-01 (1940)). It must therefore be presumed that the General Assembly had full knowledge of the differing time frames outlined above when it revised those code sections.

Additionally, it is significant that when O.C.G.A. §§ 21-5-40 to -45 were previously amended in 1994, the General Assembly specifically included a transition period with limits for election years after 1994 different from limits for the 1994 election year. See 1994 Ga. Laws 258, 267-71. In the 2000 amendment to those code sections, however, the General Assembly made no such provision for coordinating the transition from previous limits to the new limits under the election cycle format.

Finally, statutes do not normally receive retrospective application. “‘Statutes framed in general terms and not plainly indicating the contrary will be construed prospectively, so as to apply to persons, subjects, and things within their purview and scope coming into existence subsequent to their enactment.’” Undercofler v. Swint, 111 Ga. App. 117, 119 (1965) (citation omitted) (quoting Griffin v. Benton, 92 Ga. App. 167, 168 (1955)). The General Assembly recited no intention in the 2000 revision of article 2A of the Ethics in Government Act, O.C.G.A. §§ 21-5-40 to -45 (Supp. 2000), that the election cycle format be applied retrospectively.

Based on the above, I must conclude that the new contribution limits for the election cycle format should only be applied prospectively. Thus, it is my opinion that contributions prior to January 1, 2001 under the election year/non-election year format should not be counted against the new election cycle contribution limits set forth in the revised version of O.C.G.A. § 21-5-41 (Supp. 2000). Only contributions occurring on or after January 1, 2001, should be counted toward the contribution limits for an election cycle.

Prepared by:

KYLE A. PEARSON
Assistant Attorney General