Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Poisoning the Well

With the demise of congestion pricing, transit and livable streets advocates have encountered the dysfunction that is Albany politics. Many are understandably frustrated, and looking for something to do. Before the final non-vote, the League of Conservation Voters set up a political action committee funded at about $300,000 - with strong hints that lawmakers who failed to support congestion pricing would not receive money from the PAC, and challengers to those lawmakers probably would.

Streetsblog commenter JK had this interesting insight about the relationship between patronage and corruption:

The big reform would be banning earmarks/member items/pork/set asides. There are some interesting studies which suggest there is a relationship between the amount of pork/patronage and the competitiveness of elections. ( I'll see if I can find a famous one from Argentina.)

JK hasn't provided the study, but I did a little googling and came up with this one. I haven't yet read it to the end, but it looks pretty interesting. For now I'm going to take it as a given that the more pork, the less competitive the elections. Here's what I wrote in response:

JK, that is awesome! The machine is so entrenched and pulling it out by the roots would be really difficult. But if it feeds on patronage ... poison the patronage, and it dies!

Let's take a closer look at the pork in the state budget - something the Legislature doesn't want us to do, and succeeded for several years at preventing us from doing, which is baffling in itself. The State Budget page still doesn't have any details five days later, but some of the papers have information about this budget and previous ones. This 2007 list from Rockland is particularly interesting. It shows the level of patronage - i.e. the discrepancy between the favored and the less-favored. While in 2006 Silver took $7 million for his own district, in 2007 Rockland legislators got between $103,000 and $153,000 (I'm assuming that the "million" in the blog post is a mistake).

The thing that gets me is that the total $200 million per house is a big deal (it'd buy about 100 subway cars), but the amounts for each member are chump change, at least in Rockland. $153,000 is a lot more than I make in a year, but it's much less than the value of my apartment. Corporations and large nonprofits toss this kind of money around all the time.

So let's say you're a wealthy heir, dot-com whiz or good-government organization with a few million to spend on reforming state government. You fund a nonprofit group dedicated to community improvement. Then you pick a legislator who's pissed you off recently and find out the amount and recipient of each of their "member items." Your nonprofit offers them an identical grant - on the condition that they sign an agreement rejecting the legislator's member item. Knowing the speed of state government, you already have an advantage: they can get the money from you in their bank account tomorrow, or wait god knows how long for the state grant to come through.

Some may not be willing to reject the pork money right away. You could then offer them double the money, or triple, or ten times. For an individual legislator we know you can't spend more than $70 million doing that. The League of Conservation Voters expects to have $300,000, so they could do the double-your-money offer.

If you do that for two years, then the next election cycle the constituents will have received absolutely no pork from that legislator. The legislator gets no ribbon-cutting or check-delivery ceremonies - in fact there are none, because your organization quietly refuses to participate. The various organizations might still feel that the legislator was influential in determining what you gave them, so you might want to mix it up a bit, pull a Claire Zachanassian: say that if they vote for someone else - anyone, even the legislator's son - then you'll guarantee that there will be a fund of twice the district allocation available for the next ten years.

You might not even have to require them to refuse the member item. Just the fact of paying the exact same amount as the legislator might be enough to confuse things. I'm just throwing ideas out here, but the point is that for any individual legislator the totals are so small that it should be really easy to make an example of someone. A really wealthy person could easily buy the whole state. How crazy is that, selling your district's votes for $153,000?

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