Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Daddy Amman and Papa Williams Give the Kid some “Walk Around” Cash

At the very last moment, campaign finance reform made it through the legislative sausage grinder at the state capitol, sending Andy Sauer, executive director of Connecticut Common Cause, dancing up and down the aisles shocked with surprise and joy. The two parties once again had compromised.

That word, “compromise,” very well may be the most misused word in political discourse. In any case, Democrats and Republicans had – what’s the word? – conspired to satisfy Andy Sauer and other pro-campaign finance reform enthusiasts. The power often wielded by the malefactors of great wealth to corrupt innocent incumbent politicians by stuffing their campaigns with cash had suffered a serious blow.

But just as the sun of campaign finance reform was pushing aside the night of corrupting political influence, dark clouds were gathering on the horizon.

A report on slush funds by Keith Phaneuf tells us in embarrassing detail how legislative leaders and governors sock away what used to be called in the bad old days of Tammany Hall “walk around money” used primarily to help party incumbents improve their political relations in their home districts.

“The $16.07 billion budget adopted Monday,” the JI discloses, “includes $6.6 million in undefined discretionary spending - called ‘slush funds’ by critics - to be controlled by Democratic legislative leaders, an arrangement state auditors called inequitable in a 2002 report.”

Ever polite, Democrats also “built a $2.3 million discretionary fund into the budget for Gov. M. Jodi Rell. But the Republican governor's budget director said Monday the administration would not spend the dollars, but would save and ultimately deposit them into government's Rainy Day Fund.”

The Washington beltway has its “earmarks” – funds set aside in budgets to grease the campaign skids for faithful partisans – and Connecticut has its slush funds. But the political art involved is the same: “The basic premise behind the funds,” Phaneuf explains, “is that a pool of money is carved out in the budget bill, but, unlike other sections of the budget, no specific projects or other use for the money is mentioned.

“In actuality, legislative leaders already have pledged to use some of these dollars to support projects in their districts and in the districts of their political allies. Others projects might be targeted for funding after the fiscal year begins.

“These funds provide a bargaining chip for legislative leaders looking to shore up support among their own caucus, or to build up favors and garner votes on key issues.”

Naturally, Republicans think slush funds are a bad idea, but Democrats are down with it.

Campaign finance reform has removed from political parties the authority to parcel out campaign funds, investing that function in party leaders. But the campaign bankers – James Amann and Donald Williams – may run into a slight problem this time. While the legislature is constitutionally charged with dispensing tax dollars, only the executive department can sign off on the rather expensive bargaining chips. So far, Rell seems to be offering a stiff resistance.

Truly, there is no end to reform – because there is no end to the ingenuity of politicians; there is no mousetrap a clever mouse cannot escape.

When the news was brought to Amman that state auditors had declared the distribution of tax money in slush funds to be inequitable, the Speaker seemed flustered, and one could almost see the lines taking shape in his mind. If only he were free to say the truth: Do you think leaders in the legislature can command loyalty, indispensable to the art of government, by snapping their fingers, you dope? Loyalty must be bought -- through the application of rewards and punishments. And if I can’t buy loyalty by dispensing campaign funds given to me by PACs and unions, then here is a way.

And if God is a Democrat, there will always be a way.
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