Whenever a government makes a decision to spend money, or designs a regulation to right a wrong, it creates a business opportunity. If you reject, as I do, the Tea Party trend toward “all government taxation and spending are bad,” then you are left with a few questions.
- How do you protect the system from corruption and undue influence?
- How do you maximize value for taxpayers?
Over the past few years (decades?), Rhode Island’s legislature has done a poor job on both counts. In this article, I’ll focus on the first question.
Don’t re-elect corrupt officials
Every day new fingers are pointed about improprieties and influence on everything from auto body regulation to contract steering. Some legislators appear to profit directly. Others direct state dollars to their partners and acquaintances. Others win friends and get financial contributions and other forms of support from vested interests in exchange for line items, sweetheart contracts and back room deals.
On a Federal level, much of this institutionalized corruption is legal. Peter Schweitzer, in his disturbing book, Throw Them All Out, outlines the methods that the so-called, “The Permanent Political Class” use to generate personal wealth for themselves and their friends. According to Schweitzer, there are no solid rules against United States senators, representatives, and even the president, from using their advance and insider knowledge of federal government legislation and regulations. Schweitzer goes into detail about deals made by Democrats and Republicans alike that include advanced IPO purchases, land buys relating to federal funding and so on. It’s pretty horrifying stuff.
Schweitzer also talks about how businesses leverage their profits based on advance knowledge, insider knowledge and the simple massive power of Federal spending to “earn” billions of dollars. The equation is simple. Businesses with ties and links and lobbyists earn a better return than those who operate on a “level” playing field.
Here in Rhode Island, we seem particularly inept and vulnerable to these sorts of machinations. We are a small state, so it’s almost a certainty that a legislator proposing a bill will hear from the constituency who will benefit from it. Indeed, where else ought a legislator turn to learn about a particular regulation?
It’s almost inescapable. For example, when I was discussing the challenge the state faces dealing with the decades of politicians granting union benefits in exchange for union support, my wife, who is a teacher and a union member said, “Don’t touch my pension!”
I think that constitutes “influence”, don’t you?
But other forms are more insidious. As a newly declared candidate, I began to receive “questionnaires” from organizations asking if I wanted their support. The first two that came in, Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club, were fairly easy to answer.
I’ve always been a 100% supporter of a woman’s right to choose, a proponent of education, and an opponent to government imposition of will on a person’s body. I’ve always been a believer that one of the jobs of government is to protect, nurture and restore the environment.
But I noticed that these letters were lobbying me before I was even elected. I learned, for example, that Rhode Island law requires notification of a husband, if a wife wants an abortion. Planned Parenthood asked if I would try to change that. I said I wasn’t sure, yet. I later learned that how the organization avoided that situation was to not ask women if they were married.
A few days later, the Right to Life questionnaire came in, and I pitched it in the trash.
I’ve gotten a few Union questionnaires, too. In general, I’m a huge supporter of trade unions. I believe that workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively. But my opinion on some issues is nuanced. One political adviser suggested that I avoid using these questionnaires to address subtle issues, but I had already sent in one:
5) Would you support standards that would link public economic development assistance to companies that create good jobs, pay fair wages, provide decent benefits and comply with environmental, labor and other laws? (Development Assistance is defined as abatements, loans, grants, contracts, tax breaks, etc).
COMMENTS: YES. However, as the 38 Studios and so many other failed initiatives show, I am wary of providing economic development assistance to companies who are only moving here because of that assistance.
More and more questionnaires. One lured with the promise that all of the people they supported won their elections. Another flat out threatened…
The day after the recent massacre in Colorado, I got a flier from the NRA asking me to support their agenda and warning me that, “If you choose not to return a questionnaire, you may be assigned a ‘?’ rating, which can be interpreted by our membership as indifference, if not outright hostility toward Second Ammendment-related issues.“ (boldface theirs!)
My position? Guns do kill people. I oppose assault weapons in the hands of insane people. The culture of handguns in this country is killing people in Providence every month. Is there anything good about this? I don’t think so. (Although I have to admit that in the darkest days of the Bush administration, I could understand the idea of buying a gun to protect yourself against the government.) If I’m elected, I’ll consider increasing gun regulation and limiting the purchase of devastating weapons. Make of that what you will, NRA, I will not be returning your form.
Vigilance, Integrity and Mindfulness
I am not running for office to make a buck. I want to make our state better, and one of the most powerful ways is to get the corruption out of government.
When that legislator makes (or protects) a buck for himself or his family or his business, or receives a campaign contribution – or the promise of votes, volunteers and support at the polls – the vote is plainly unethical.
The next question people ask is, “How will you avoid that yourself?”
It’s a challenge. Any vote for a tax cut could benefit me. A tax break for the arts would benefit my friends. Any vote for increased funding for education will benefit my family — and certainly benefit my children, who are in the public schools.
I can only promise that I will pay attention and always ask, “Who profits? Who loses?”
And be very very very public about the process.