In the wake of scandals, some states and cities have passed “pay-to-play” laws. These laws often prohibit political campaign contributions by those who seek government contracts, or the laws may impose special disclosure requirements.
Many people make campaign contributions to candidates whose ideals and goals they share. This is an important part of our political process. But when reading campaign finance reports for members of the Wichita City Council, one sees the same names appearing over and over, often making the maximum allowed contribution to candidates. Their spouses also contribute.
And when one looks at the candidates these people contribute to, you notice that often there’s no commonality to the political goals and ideals of the candidates. Some people contribute equally to liberal and conservative council members. Then, when these people appear in the news after having received money from the Wichita City Council, it snaps into place: These campaign donors are not donating to those whose ideals they agree with. They’re donating so they can line their own pockets.
Some states and cities have taken steps to reduce this harmful practice. New Jersey is notable for its New Jersey Local Unit Pay-To-Play Law. In a nutshell, the law affects many local units of government and the awarding of contracts having a value of over $17,500. The law affects contracts awarded by other than a “fair and open process,” which basically means a contract process open to bidding. For other contracts, here is the summary of the law:
A municipal or county government agency cannot award a contract without using a fair and open process if the contractor …
- is a contributor to a candidate committee or a political party committee where a member of the party is serving in an elective public office of that municipality or county, and, either …
- made “reportable” contributions (those in excess of $300) during the year prior to the award, and/or …
- makes contributions during the life of the contract.
The New Jersey law requires that businesses seeking government contracts certify they have not made contributions that would bar them from eligibility. It also contains provisions that contributions from a business owner’s spouse and children will be deemed to be from the business itself. For corporations, the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses, are considered to be from the corporation itself for purposes of the law.
Alabama, Connecticut, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Ohio, and South Dakota are other states with some form of pay-to-play laws. Some of these are being challenged in the courts.
It’s not only states that have such laws. Cities, too, are passing them.
In 2009 Dallas passed a law, as described in a post on the Pay to Play Law Blog: “The ethics package contains numerous changes to existing lobbyist registration and disclosure requirements, City Council zoning powers and the disclosure of gifts to Council members. Most relevant to the pay-to-play space is that anyone bidding on a city contract is now prohibited from making donations during the bid period. Additionally, ‘major’ zoning applicants can no longer make contributions to Council members during the window which begins on the date of public notice of the zoning case, and which ends 60 days after the zoning case is resolved. Such changes are not too surprising in this instance, given that the scandal involving Hill revolved around favorable treatment for developers.”
Notably, the Dallas law was in response to special treatment for real estate developers — the very issue Wichita is facing now as it prepares to pour millions into the pockets of a small group of favored — and highly subsidized — downtown developers.
Smaller cities, too, have these laws. A charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.” The population of Santa Ana is 324,528, which is just a little smaller than Wichita.
But Kansas has no such law. Certainly Wichita does not, where pay-to-play is seen by many citizens as a way of life. Those who want money from the council see it that way.
And citizens may remember the 2008 campaign for a bond issue for USD 259, the Wichita public school district. In my reporting of the campaign contributions made in support of the bond spending, I wrote: “One analysis finds that 72% of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, was given by contractors, architects, engineering firms and others who directly stand to benefit from the new construction.”
The firm of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture was a standout contributor to the bond effort, both in terms of cash contributions and in-kind contributions. Not surprisingly, that firm was awarded a contract for plan management services for the bond issue. The value of this contract is one percent of the value of the bond issue, or $3.7 million, and the firm will undoubtedly earn millions more for those projects on which it serves as architect.
In Kansas, campaign finance reports are filed by candidates and available to citizens, although some have problems with the timing of the filings. But many politicians don’t want these contributions discussed, at least in public. Recently Wichita Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) expressed concern over the potential award of a $6 million construction contract, paid for with city funds, without an open bidding process. The contract is likely to go to Key Construction, a firm whose principals — and spouses — regularly appear on campaign finance reports, making the maximum allowed contribution to a wide variety of candidates.
For expressing his concern, O’Donnell was roundly criticized by many other council members, and especially by Mayor Carl Brewer. Video of the mayor’s remarks may be viewed at Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer addresses critics.
I can understand how council members don’t want to discuss their campaign contributions from those they’re about to give money to. It stinks. It causes citizens to be cynical of their government and withdraw from participation in civic affairs. It causes government to grow. It leads to more government planning of our lives, as is happening in Wichita. Pay-to-play laws can help.