Sunday, February 20, 2011

Pay-to-Play and Political Corruption

While we're waiting on the next Rutgers-Eagleton Poll (coming soon, I promise!) here are some thoughts on a topic that is regularly of interest in New Jersey: political corruption.

There certainly has been a lot of talk about corruption in New Jersey over the years. And Garden Staters are dubious at best about the ethics of their politicians according to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll we did in late 2009. Among the efforts to deal with corruption over the past few years has been pay-to-play laws, designed to limit the ability of large campaign donors to score contracts from local government.

Recently, there has been some discussion of whether Mayor Tony Mack violated Trenton's pay-to-pay laws by in effect having money donated to his campaign through a third party.

Last June, Atlantic City law firm Cooper Levenson donated $7,200 to Partners for Progress "which donated an identical amount to Mack's campaign three days later." The city attorney feels this violated the spirit of the pay-to-play law and attempted to nullify the contract even though the firm asked for and received a refund of its campaign donation shortly after the election. Mayor Mack disagreed and stated that the contract was in good standing.

More recently, the firm asked for its contract to be terminated partly due to the negative press it was receiving.

On the other side of the state, Atlantic City is about to pass its own pay-to-play ordinance in order to quality for state assistance with its budget problems. This is the latest in a patchwork of municipal and county ordinances that are popping up sporadically.

While people may say that the passage of all these ordinances is good news, the real challenge is a lack of consistency and clarity in the laws in different places. A municipality’s mayor and attorney should not be able to reasonably disagree over whether campaign finance laws were broken, yet that is exactly the situation Trenton has found itself in. What we’re left with now is an administration that is either facing a real scandal or an innocent situation blown out of proportion.

Yet the idea of the pay-to-play laws is to address the very real sense among Garden Staters that this state is inherently corrupt. In our 2009 poll, 65% of New Jerseyans agreed that "that there is 'a lot' of political corruption in New Jersey." (PDF link) This is an increase of 20 points from 2004! This same poll found that a plurality of respondents favored citizen's groups to take the lead on ethics with 28% and only 22% choosing state and federal prosecutors. Moreover, New Jerseyans overwhelmingly would prefer ineffective honest politicians over effective dishonest ones.

It may be that the increase in perceptions of corruption in the state is partly due to headlines where it’s not entirely clear whether or not someone violated the law. And there is little doubt that the flow of money in politics both helps feed the perception, but of course also creates the reality of corruption as well.

Money is never going to leave politics and even local campaigns get more sophisticated and costly nearly every cycle. The recession and pay-to-play laws have resulted in somewhat of a decrease in fundraising lately but this is partly due to fear on the part of donors who don’t want to risk contracts. So instead other ways are found, including donating to organizations not legally running “campaigns” and thus not required to disclose where their money comes from. What we’ll be left with is donations made with no legal obligation to disclose donors. And without disclosure how do we even know if pay-to-play laws work?

Much more is going to need to e done to restore Garden Stater’s confidence in their elected officials.

(Note, Thanks to Jorge Santos for his contributions to this post.)

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