Of all the unsettling information we’ve gained from the Sal DiMasi trial, one takeaway has been unsurprising: On Beacon Hill, money talks.
The only difference is that typically, money used to influence the legislative process flows through legal channels. Take two scenarios:
A legislator writes and passes a law, personally pocketing thousands of dollars in kickbacks from the company the law benefits. This is what Sal DiMasi was found guilty of doing.
Another legislator opposes a bill that would benefit consumers but hurt the business of a particular industry, and receives as a thank-you thousands of dollars — in $500 increments, payable to his campaign committee — from lobbyists and business leaders in this industry.
This legislator was doing something that happens all the time: Raising campaign cash from the people who have it and have a reason to give it. His actions are legal, but are they right? Is this really the best way to run a government?
One of the biggest problems with our campaign finance system is that campaigns are often funded by the exact same people who are looking for specific government action — a contract, a tax break or a piece of legislation. Regardless of whether donations are made with an explicit quid pro quo, the implication is the same: A campaign donation will improve your chances of getting what you want from your government.
Despite recent scandals, I firmly believe from experience that most elected officials are honest people trying to do the right thing. We ran for public office out of a desire to help people and make a difference for our communities.
That work is made harder, however, by a system that erodes public faith in government, as even honest elected officials look tainted when money seems to be greasing the wheels of government. High-dollar fund-raisers filled with lobbyists and corporate executives, often taking place in the weeks around budget deliberations, do little to dispel this notion.
It’s a message the public, as well as lobbyists, seem to have absorbed. Constituents calling my office for help will sometimes hesitantly note that they volunteered on or donated to my campaign, perhaps hoping this might improve their chances of success.
Although my staff knows what to tell these constituents — my office is there to help everyone, regardless of who they may or may not have supported politically — it’s alarming and sad that so many people believe that this is the only way to get a fair shake from their government.
But can you blame them? How many stories have there been about jobs in the Probation Department going to campaign donors, sweetheart deals for special interests, bribery and shady campaign donations?
It’s no surprise the public would look at this growing list and conclude that government is for the rich and connected.
This is why it’s time we undertake bold reform.
I have proposed “An Act Restoring Public Confidence in Government by Eliminating Pay-to-Play Opportunities,” which would prohibit lobbyists from soliciting campaign contributions and prohibit principals of state contractors (with contracts of $50,000 or greater) and their immediate family from giving or soliciting contributions for statewide and legislative candidates for office. This legislation is modeled on Connecticut law, which is one of the strictest in the nation and was upheld by the courts in December 2008.
By limiting the impact of corporate money, we’ll have a better chance of passing important pieces of legislation that enjoy high levels of public support, but have been stalled for years by opposition from well-connected lobbyists and their corporate clients.
The public deserves to feel confident that their elected officials are making decisions based on what is best for the people — and not themselves. In the wake of the DiMasi trial, with all its disheartening revelations, the time is right for the Legislature to pass anti-pay-to-play legislation.
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) represents the Middlesex and Worcester District.