How Connecticut’s “Pay to Play” Ban Wouldn’t Have Stopped Blagjevich

I was on Brad Davis’s radio show on WDRC in Connecticut this morning, discussing the recent decision by a federal District Court judge upholding their ban on contributions from lobbyists or state contractors. Doing a little research before the show, I ran across something interesting, and which just shows what a useless infringement on the First Amendment these so-called “pay to play” laws are.

The theory of “pay to play” bans is that elected officials will reward their campaign contributors with contracts. I’ve no doubt that this is true in some cases, but I doubt the practice is nearly as widespread as claimed by the campaign finance “reform” community. Usually, these laws are passed in response to some other scandal that the “pay to play” ban would not have affected if it had been in place.

For example, Connecticut passed it’s “pay to play” law after the corruption scandal of former governor John Rowland. Inconveniently for the “reformers,” Rowland wasn’t trading contracts for campaign cash, he was apparently getting free work done on his cottage by state contractors, among other goodies. No campaign contributions were involved, according to all the reports I’ve read.

Nevertheless, “reformers” were quick to seize on the scandal and propose a solution unrelated to the original scandal, banning contractors and lobbyists from enjoying the constitutionally protected right to support the candidate or cause of their choice.

Which brings us to today, where Governor Rod Blagojevich is being touted as the new poster-child for “pay to play” bans by “reformers.” Most of us following the saga of “Hot Rod” are aware of the charge that Governor Blagojevich tried to get a $50,000 contribution from an executive at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago in exchange for $8 million from the state.

If ever there were a case of “pay to play,” this is it. Passing bans on state contractors and lobbyists from contributing, we are told, will put an end to this sort of thing. Here is Laura MacCleery of the Brennan Center, a leading advocate for “pay to play” bans, responding to the judge’s decision to uphold Connecticut’s law:

…The current shameful situation in Illinois-and the earlier corruption scandals in Connecticut that prompted enactment of this law-show that too often politicians are willing to trade away their offices for private gain. This law protects taxpayers by assuring that those seeking to do business with the state are not paving their way with campaign contributions…

Let’s set aside the fact that in the case of Children’s Memorial Hospital, it was not someone allegedly “seeking to do business with the state” who tried to exchange campaign cash for state contracts, but instead an elected officeholder attempting to extort money from a potential contributor. Instead, let’s focus on a simple question: had what Blagojevich supposedly attempted been done in Connecticut, would the Connecticut law have stopped it?

The answer, it turns out, is no. The $8 million in state funding wasn’t actually going to Children’s Memorial Hospital, instead it was going to be used to increase reimbursements for pediatricians who worked at Children’s Memorial and other hospitals. The head of Children’s Memorial just happened to be the leader of a coalition of hospitals who sought the increased reimbursement for pediatricians.

There was no “contract” between Illinois and Children’s Memorial, so the Connecticut “pay to play” ban wouldn’t prevent a corrupt politician in the Nutmeg State from extorting contributions in the way Governor Blagojevich apparently attempted to in Illinois.

That said, I doubt this bit of reality will intrude on the “reformers” zeal to push these “pay to play” bans using the example of Governor Blagojevich as what these laws are intended to stop.

Except, as we’ve seen, it wouldn’t have.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.