Shutting Down the Spigot

New Jersey plans to join the ranks of states trying to disconnect campaign contributions from the awarding of state contracts.

The state Senate endorsed a plan in February that would ban firms and individuals who give more than $17,500 to a gubernatorial campaign or their committees from being eligible for state contracts.

Several other cities and states -- including Illinois, California and the city of Philadelphia -- are considering reforms designed to end the legalized bribery that passes for the financing of American political campaigns.

The practice, known as pay-to-play, has a long and sordid history at the city and state level in the United States. Pay-to-play provides a way for contractors and others seeking favors from the government to gain access. The contractor, say a major auditing firm, makes a significant campaign contribution to a gubernatorial candidate. When the candidate wins, the firm garners a state contract.

The practice is legal -- there is no official quid pro quo, no written agreement linking the job to the contribution. But it shouldn't be.

"It seems like every week we read in the newspaper about a public contract linked to a contribution to a political fund," Illinois State Comptroller Dan Hynes said when announcing his support for legislation that would prohibit contractors with more than $25,000 from giving money to the officeholder who awarded the contract.

"Taxpayers have a fundamental right to expect that government officials are basing their actions on sound public policy and are embracing the highest ethical standards." (Rockford Register Star, Ill.)

The New Jersey pay-to-play bill, which has passed both legislative houses and awaits the signature of acting Gov. Richard Codey, is relatively weak. Once it becomes law, it will only cover contributions to gubernatorial candidates and their committees, but not to political parties, legislative candidates or their committees, or local or county hopefuls.

That represents a significant loophole in the legislation that could allow contributors to make an end run around the rules. Contributors could still "wheel" cash through various accounts, contributing to municipal parties who in turn pass the cash up the food chain, or vice versa.

Senate Republicans have been pushing for a more comprehensive ban that would cover legislative, county and municipal races, as well as all political parties and committees. (The GOP has not exactly been up front in its attack on pay-to-play, waiting until it lost the governorship in 2001 before making it an issue.)

As New Jersey state officials argue the merits of pay-to-play bans, a brush fire has been spreading around the state, with many municipal and county governments enacting their own bans often after a citizens' group forced their hands via initiative and referendum. In South Brunswick, where I live, Republican Township Councilman Ted Van Hessen forced the council to consider reforms with the help of a growing grassroots movement for change. When the council adopted what the citizens group deemed weak rules, it mounted a petition drive and forced the council to enact a far more stringent ordinance.

The same thing has happened in towns across the state, generally with the help of groups like Common Cause and the Center for Civic Responsibility.

I make no claims for pay-to-play bans. They are likely to have only limited efficacy, forcing contributors and politicians to find more creative ways of doing business. It is like the little Dutch boy plugging leaks in the dike with his finger. Each time he plugs one, another leak develops. Ultimately, the process leads to a greater awareness of the leaks and the entire wall can be replaced.

In this way, each ban that passes creates momentum for future reforms. This is the gist of what Harry Pozycki, chairman of N.J. Common Cause and the founder and board member for CCR, told the New York Times in February after the N.J. Senate vote. Even minimal reforms, he said, eventually would lead to more significant change.

"The more contractors you catch in the pay-to-play net, the more pressure there will be for more pay-to-play reform," he said after the N.J. Senate vote.

To get involved, contact:

• Center for Civic Responsibility, 450 Main St., Second Floor, Metuchen, NJ 08840; phone, 732-548-9798; email,;

• Common Cause, Public Citizen, 1600 20th St., NW, Washington, DC 20009; phone, 202-588-1000;

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of two central New Jersey newspapers. Email

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