MetroWest Daily News: Restoring confidence in state government

By Sen. Jamie Eldridge/Guest columnist

As our state government wrestles with the serious challenges facing us – declining revenues brought on by a national recession to rising unemployment, sky-rocketing health care costs, a crumbling transportation infrastructure – it’s becoming clear that there is one problem that must be tackled first: the decline in public confidence in our state government.

Over the past year, there have been an alarming number of incidents involving elected officials: sweetheart deals for special interests, unreported lobbying, pension abuse, bribery, shady campaign donations and expenditures, lobbyists thumbing their noses at state regulators. Three consecutive Speakers of the House have had to leave public office in disgrace. It’s no surprise that the public would look at this growing list and come to the conclusion that elected officials can’t be trusted, which erodes public support for important initiatives to improve the quality of life for citizens of Massachusetts.

Public service is a privilege, and the abuse of that privilege by a select few has left all elected officials looking tainted in the process. It may run contrary to current public opinion, but 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 – and the unethical actions of a few have made it much harder for the rest of us to do the work we came to do. Yet, as we file legislation and make calls for major reforms in the private and public sector, we fail to take action to reform our own institutions.

It’s for this reason that I am advocating for significant ethics and campaign finance reform to be one of our first orders of business this session. I believe our government cannot function effectively until we have given the public reason to be confident that we, their elected officials, are making our decisions based on what is best for the people – and not ourselves. Study after study shows that because of the public’s increasing lack of faith in government, legislators’ efforts to make major reforms in society to help people are met with an increasingly skeptical eye.

I’m a strong supporter of Gov. Patrick’s proposed ethics reforms and lobbying reforms, including proposals to strengthen investigative and enforcement authority, improve the lobbying laws, enhance penalties, and impose ethics education and training requirements – and I’m glad to see that most of these reforms have support within the Massachusetts Legislature.

However, I don’t think these proposed reforms go far enough – which is why I’ve proposed additional legislation regulating campaign contributions from lobbyists and those seeking government contracts.

One of the biggest problems with our current 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. Whether or not the 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. This is often referred to as a “pay to play” situation, and it’s part of what led to the impeachment of former-Gov. Rod Blagojevich in Illinois, who allegedly tied administrative action to donations to his campaign account.

The legislation I am proposing – the “Anti-Pay-to-Play Bill” – 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 during the bidding process or throughout the length of their government contract. These changes would limit the influence of moneyed interests and the impact they have on legislative deliberations – eliminating “pay-to-play” opportunities in the campaign finance system and, hopefully, increasing public confidence in the integrity of our system as a result.

The state Legislature should pass meaningful ethics reform now, so that we can get on with the other pressing business of the people that lies before us. Passing anti-pay-to-play legislation along with the governor’s proposed ethics reforms would send a strong message to the public right when it’s needed most: you can trust that your state government is acting in the interests of the people – and only the people – as we tackle the serious challenges facing us.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge represents the Middlesex-Worcester District.