On the heels of a terrific NPR-station exposé, the District of Columbia has become the first large U.S. jurisdiction to enact campaign finance reform thanks to job subsidies becoming transparent.
In 2011, the D.C Fiscal Policy Institute convinced the DC Council to require an annual Unified Economic Development Budget (UEDB, a key Good Jobs First reform). Better than most UEDB’s that report only program costs, DC’s UEDB was how DC began online recipient disclosure for all subsidy transactions worth more than $75,000 in any fiscal year. It was a landmark moment in economic development transparency: District subsidies are now posted online in a single place for all to see.
When the data came online in 2012, WAMU reporters Julie Patel and Patrick Madden began investigating rumors that big campaign contributors were also getting big subsidies. Their 2013 series, “Deals for Developers, Cash for Campaigns,” mashed up campaign finance reports with subsidy deals. The results shocked many: over a decade, 10 big developers had given more than $2.5 million in campaign contributions to political candidates and then received nearly a third of the District’s $1.7 billion in subsidies examined. Despite strict campaign finance laws capping such donations, developers skirted the law by forming multiple LLCs and donating to candidates from each of them—the “LLC loophole.” Madden and Patel built a timeline that found such campaign donations were also timed noticeably close to subsidy award, suggesting an influence connection.
So thanks to economic development transparency, the District learned it had a massive campaign finance loophole. Council members were outraged and eventually passed a bill in 2013 to close the LLC loophole. The new law went into effect in January 2015 and LLC bundling is no longer legal. Before the loophole took effect, numerous developers rushed to make significant contributions. Unfortunately, political consultants are already suggesting the law be defeated by trusted campaign staffers to run Political Action Committees (or PACs) which can take unlimited campaign contributions after the Citizens United decision.
While subsidy transparency can reveal influence and loopholes and spur officials to act, ethics in government need more than local campaign finance reforms. Mashing up subsidy disclosure data and campaign finance records can change the public discourse and allow citizens to demand greater ethics from their elected representatives.