Archive for the ‘Campaign contributions’ Category

DC Subsidy Transparency Leads to Campaign Finance Reform

March 27, 2015

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.

moneybags

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.

Timing of Campaign Contributions & Awarding of Subsidies (credit: WAMU)

 

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.

Virginia Governor Vetoes Bill That Would Ban Pay-To-Play on Subsidies

May 30, 2014

This week, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed a bill that would have banned corporations seeking Governor’s Opportunity Fund (GOF) subsidies from making contributions or gifts to the elected official awarding those subsidies: in other words, the Governor himself. The bill had unanimous two-chamber support among both Republicans and Democrats, and members of both parties criticized the Governor’s action.

Governor McAuliffe’s primary objection cited in the veto to the bill was that state legislators ought to be held to the same standards. The statute and guidelines state that GOF subsidies are awarded primarily at the discretion of the Governor, though the General Assembly and the Attorney General have a modest oversight role. One co-sponsor of the bill stated that he hopes to re-introduce the bill again next session, though it’s unclear whether the bill will stay in its current form.

It’s a strange moment in Virginia politics. The bill arose out of concern related to the previous Governor’s gift scandal. Just after leaving office in January, former Governor Bob McDonnell was indicted, something that had never happened before in the state.

Is such legislation needed in Virginia?

Good Jobs First previously highlighted an apparent pay-to-play issue in Virginia when McDonnell awarded Northrop Grumman $3 million in GOF subsidies after receiving major campaign contributions from the company.

While banning contributions to politicians from companies seeking subsidies is one way to encourage stronger ethics in government, another approach could be to ban companies from receiving subsidies if they have given or subsequently give contributions to officials awarding or enforcing subsidy contracts. Both would deter pay-to-play practices. Excluding subsidies to campaign contributors would be far easier to implement by shifting implementation away from elected officials and onto agencies awarding subsidies. Just as failing to create jobs can result in recapture or rescission of subsidies, a subsidy contract can undergo a clawback if the agency finds that a company has given to key public officials.

Apparent pay-to-play subsidies are not a problem isolated to Virginia. For example:

  • Texas: As we blogged previously, several newspapers have suggested that economic development subsidies controlled by Texas Governor Rick Perry are tied to fund-raising.
  • Wisconsin: Investigative Reporter Mike Ivey reported this week that the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a privatized economic development agency, has awarded more than 60 percent of $975 million in subsidies to companies that have contributed to Governor Scott Walker or the Republican Governor’s Association.

For decades, state and cities have taken strong stances against allowing gifts and campaign contributions to contractors. Why not ensure the same level of integrity when it comes to economic development spending?

New ProgressOhio Report: JobsOhio Unaccountable and Ineffective

May 29, 2014

ProgressOhioLogo_transp1

ProgressOhio released a report today questioning the accountability and effectiveness of JobsOhio, the privatized economic development agency created by Gov. John Kasich in 2011.  The organization found that JobsOhio “exaggerated its impact, funneled state money to companies that did not create or retain the promised jobs, and has a pattern of helping companies with ties to its politically potent governing board.”

The report was released in conjunction with a discussion hosted by the American Constitution Society.    ProgressOhio Executive Director Brian Rothenberg told the event audience that “JobsOhio is secret because it is private. But we still get glimpses of the toxic mix of public money and private gain.”

Read the full report here.

Subsidies to Campaign Contributors in NC and DC

May 20, 2013

Two recent investigative news reports, one in North Carolina and another in District of Columbia, provide useful examples of how major campaign contributors often end up receiving substantial subsidies or special tax treatment.

Click the image to go to the WAMU website

Click the image to go to the WAMU website

The News & Observer in North Carolina published a series of articles called “Missing Money” that examined the state’s tax subsides. One of the articles looked at ties between lawmakers and subsidy recipients. For example, two large hog and poultry processors each contributed $100,000 to a state senator who introduced a bill making the materials they purchased to build their animal housing exempt from sales taxes. Although the contributions were far in excess of legal limits, the processors were not prosecuted.

WAMU, an NPR affiliate in the District of Columbia, has begun a series of reports called “Deals for Developers.” The “Day 1” part exposes connections between political campaign contributions and subsidies.

The investigation shows that one-third of the $1.7 billion in public money paid out over the last decade has gone to the ten developers who contributed the most to local political campaigns. In total, those who received subsidies contributed more than $2.5 million and received subsidies worth some $641 million.

To avoid the city’s limits on campaign donations, the radio station found that developers contributed money through multiple shell companies as well as their employees and family members. Sadly, only a small fraction of the subsidies, about five percent, went to the neediest neighborhoods in the city. (Make sure to check out the station’s table of campaign contributions and subsidies and an infographic examining the connections.)

These two investigations were possible because of the growing transparency of economic development subsidies. North Carolina has done well on Good Jobs First transparency reports and Washington, DC not too long ago started disclosing its subsides. We hope to see similar investigative reports coming from other parts of the country, but for now we congratulate The News & Observer and WAMU on their exceptional work.