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05/16/2006 Cleaning Up Our Statehouses



*All photos by Paul Johnson

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

In Today's Dispatch:

Increasing-Democracy

Cleaning Up Our Statehouses

Americans are fed up with big money dominating and corrupting the political process. Voters are fed up; community organizations are fed up; even most politicians locked in the endless fundraising chase are fed up. As Joel Barkin, our Executive Director, wrote last week for New Hampshire's Union Leader, "Now is the Time to Tackle Corruption in Government."

That was also the message from over one hundred activists and state legislators who gathered in Concord, New Hampshire this past Friday at the "Cleaning Up Our Statehouses-- Legislative Strategies for Reform" conference, sponsored by the Progressive States Network and our New Hampshire and national partners: Americans for Campaign Reform, the Center for American Progress, Common Cause, Democracy for New Hampshire, MoveOn Civic Action, New Hampshire Citizens Alliance, NH PIRG, and Public Campaign.

Joel led off the conference by condemning the way corruption leaves "elected representatives distracted from the people's priorities; what we end up with is bureaucrats and legislators creating a two-tiered systems of treatment "one for the wealthy and corrupt, one for the rest of us." But he also welcomed a chance for legislators and community groups to share successful strategies that have helped curb the problem across the New England region.

As Joel noted, corruption is more than just a theoretical problem -- it is a real issue that places the priorities of the rich and powerful above the concerns of the rest of us, while limiting the discussion on every issue to those solutions favored by powerful interests. And while it is not just a theoretical problem, state activists are increasingly finding that it can be effectively tackled through real-world problem solving. A number of those strategies are outlined below -- lobbying and contracting reform, public financing of elections -- a number have been experimented with at the state and federal level -- campaign finance caps -- and others can have a huge impact while not even appearing to impact the election -- like Oregon's Vote-by-Mail system, which spreads the voting process over a few weeks and helps to diminish the power of well-funded candidates to overwhelm publicly-funded candidates in the last few days of an election.

Poll after poll shows corrupt politicians hemorrhaging public support. But the public wants something more than a simple changing of the guard: They are looking for evidence that there is a plan to prevent the cycle of corruption from once again rearing its ugly head. Look below for policies your state should consider and, as always, let us know if we can be of any assistance.

Lobbying and Contracting Reform Panel

Senator Lou D'Alessandro (D-New Hampshire) led off the panel on lobbying reform, emphasizing how the problem of money in politics has exploded during his decades in office. In his first election, he spent just $25 on his campaign, yet his most recent election cost $100,000. In New Hampshire, lobbying reform was driven by successive executive branch scandals, from lobbyists helping "supplement" the salaries of executive branch members to "entangling alliances" with the health care industry where part-time officials also worked for the industries they were regulating."

Rep. Jim Craig (D-New Hampshire) noted the disgust of New Hampshire citizens at the corruption in Washington, D.C. and their desire to establish clear ethical rules for their own elected representatives. "Good character is the key to good government," said Rep. Craig, "but where there are grey areas, clear rules help people to know exactly what to do."

D'Alessandro and Craig paired up with a number of other legislators and Governor John Lynch to deliver ethics reform. The reform package places new constraints on executive branch officials, increases disclosure of executive branch lobbying, and institutes strict new ethics requirements on both executive and legislative branch members.

Nick Rathod from the Center for American Progress highlighted the problem of the revolving door, where politicians cash in on their connections to become lobbyists. Rathod reeled off case after case across the country where industry lobbies have hired former legislators, dangling the lure of cushy lobbyist jobs to stifle consumer protection in the legislatures, the example of former Massachusetts Speaker Thomas Finnerman becoming head of a pharmaceutical industry front upon leaving office being one of the grosser incidents.

In Montana, Governor Brian Schweitzer is backing an initiative to impede this revolving door by prohibiting public officials -- including key staff -- from moving from public service to private lobbying in less than two years.

Nathan Newman, Progressive States Policy Director, explained how states are cracking down on "pay to play" deals where public contracts are traded for political contributions. With conservative politicians pushing more privatizations of public services to reward their corporate contributions, one key strategy a number of states have implemented have been tighter standards for awarding contracts, including banning campaign contributions from companies bidding for contracts and enacting "responsible contracting" laws to make sure only ethical companies receive public monies.

"Clean Money, Clean Elections" Panel

Turning to the issue of funding election campaigns, Rep. Nancy Smith (D-Maine) outlined at lunch how Maine was able to pioneer the first state system of public financing of elections and how it has brought more citizen-legislators like herself into state government. A dairy farmer, Rep. Smith has found that public financing of elections gave her the funds to compete effectively for office and, freed from the rounds of fundraising, the time to spend with individual voters in her district.

Rep. Marilyn Canavan (D-Maine) detailed how the Maine system arose out of the outrage of citizens seeing legislative seats bought by special interest-funded candidates, who in turn handed public favors to those special interests. "The Clean Election system in Maine ended the money game at the candidate level in Maine," said Rep. Canavan, which freed elected leaders to do the public's business.

Americans for Campaign Reform outlined what makes the Clean Elections model from Maine so attractive, a model that has also been enacted in Arizona and Connecticut, as well as in certain races in North Carolina, Vermont and a few cities. First, it's inexpensive, costing taxpayers only a few dollars per person a year; second, it provides enough funding to make candidates competitive even with better-funded opponents refusing public financing, and, three, it "cherishes the first amendment" by encouraging more voices in the political system.

Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, one of the main organization's supporting public financing of elections, applauded the hard work of activists in Maine to pass their first in the country clean elections system. He noted that their leadership paved the way for other states, like Connecticut where similar hard work led to the enactmment their clean elections law just this past December. There's an important lesson about how reform begets reform and gets the ball rolling for larger change.

Andy Sauer, Connecticut's Common Cause director, emphasized that while bouts of corruption in that state, including their governor going to jail, encouraged the public debate on public financing of elections, what was most important was hard organizing and "people giving a damn about America's ailing democracy." What mattered was forcing different politicians to want to be seen as the greatest protector of clean politics in the state and sealing that goal with strong legislation.

Finally, Nancy Tobi of Democracy for New Hampshire argued for a focus on building the grassroots local organizations that can mobilize in support of reform and protect voting rights across the country.

Moving Forward

Progressive States told the conference participants that they would serve as a resource for legislators or community organizations looking for help in drafting new legislation or campaign help on passing reform legislation. Three resource fact sheets were also provided to all participants, which are now on our web site as well:

  • Clean Money Campaigns (HTML | PDF)
  • Government Contracting Reform (HTML | PDF)
  • Lobbying Reform (HTML | PDF)
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    Eye on the Right

    Less than twenty-four hours before progressives from across New England converged in Concord, New Hampshire to find strategies for cleaning up government, Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher was indicted for conspiracy, official misconduct, and political discrimination. Although the Governor maintains his innocence, public frustration with corruption is clear: a majority of voters want Fletcher's resignation.

    Internships

    Progressive States' policy department is looking for interns for Summer 2006. We're looking for students interested in public service with experience in policy advocacy or community organizing. For details, visit the Jobs & Internships Page.

    Suggestions

    Please shoot me an email at msinger@progressivestates.org if you have feedback, tips, suggestions, criticisms, or nominations for any of our sidebar features.

    Matt Singer
    Editor, Stateside Dispatch