A one-way street?
Government is seeking donations from business. Will business seek something in return?
Gov. Jim Gibbons last week announced the formation of a commission to identify waste in Nevada state government and recommend changes.
“My goal for this commission is to drive change,” Gibbons said in a prepared statement. “This commission will identify ways the state can streamline its operations and maximize the use of taxpayer dollars, all while better serving the public. I’m not interested in another study that sits on a shelf and collects dust. I expect reasonable solutions that can be implemented immediately, as well as long-term solutions that may need legislative approval.”
The commission will be chaired by former Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bruce James, with 11 members to be named later.
Gibbons previously has said he wants a panel similar to the federal commission headed by Peter Grace, president of the W.R. Grace Corporation that is now under federal indictment for knowingly putting its workers and the public in danger through asbestos exposure. The Grace Commission claimed to have found numerous instances of federal waste, but many did not withstand scrutiny. Nevertheless, in the quarter century since the commission was formed, it has taken on mythical status in conservative circles.
Gibbons’ predecessor, Kenny Guinn, formed a similar state panel headed by Denice Miller and Don Hataway.
After Gibbons’ announcement, Carson City radio host and mayoral candidate Ken Haskins called for a city-level commission like Gibbons’ to dig out waste in municipal government.Creating a new state panel at just the time when all state agencies must cut their budgets raised the question of how Gibbons will pay for the commission’s operations. His spokesperson said Gibbons and the commission chair will seek donations from business.
Responding to an email inquiry, Gibbons press aide Ben Kieckhefer said, “This is going to be a privately funded study, and it will be incumbent upon the governor and the chairman to solicit those contributions. There will inevitably be some minor staff time by state employees—me, for example, since I’m writing this email—but it will be privately funded.”
Asked if the contributors will be disclosed, Kieckhefer replied, “Yes, when their donations are secured.”
James Hulse of Reno, who has lobbied at the Nevada Legislature for the citizen lobby group Common Cause, said his first concern about the commission would be how it is organized.
“I suppose it depends on how the commission is formed,” he said. “The idea of looking for waste is always a good one, but if that commission was somehow stacked with people intent on putting the burdens of government on those who could least afford it, that would be a concern.” Nevada has a reputation for taxing the poor and middle class.
As for the funding arrangements, Hulse said those, too, are a concern.
“If it gets its money from some kind of special interests who don’t care about the needs of the state, it obviously starts with some justifiable suspicion,” he said. “No, normally when [businesspeople] give money to government or to anything they expect a return. You can easily conceive of a situation in which those who would be likely to give money would be those trying to protect their own special interests.”
One former state official asked, “Do you think they’ll recommend cuts in [the Nevada Department of] Business and Industry?”
Beholden to business
Public officials asking for donations to run government operations is not unheard of, but it is novel. Recently in Reno, law enforcement asked for money to clear a backlog of DNA tests so it could advance a highly publicized murder case.
More troubling was a case in Reno in 1996 when the Reno City Council scheduled a meeting of the council out-of-state and met harsh criticism. It turned to the business community for money to pay for the costs associated with the meeting.
University of Florida political scientist Beth Ann Rosenson, an expert in political ethics and author of The Shadowlands Of Conduct/Ethics And State Politics, said of the Gibbons plan, “I have personally not heard of that [kind of] situation. I suppose it could be thought of as a creative way to run government when funds are low. However, it does indeed raise some potential ethics-in-government concerns. Similar to concerns about campaign finance contributions, the basic question is—What is expected in return for the money that is donated? I would like to know more about which private sector entities are doing the donating. It is possible that they are doing it out of the goodness of their heart, or their simple desire to keep government functioning, but it is also possible, indeed likely, that some sort of favors will be expected. For example, one could imagine that the donors might be considered favorably for future contracts, etc.”
California State University ethicist Chris Nagel, who teaches a course in professional ethics, said, “Without disparaging the character of the Governor, it’s certainly possible that the private source of funding could lead to a division of loyalties and some blurring of the lines between obligations to the public and expectations—perceived or real—to the private donor. The conflict of interest would result from the Governor’s interest in finding a politically expedient solution and the Governor’s responsibility to pursue the public good. A private funding source might look like a better deal than it really is, for the public, at least, because of the Governor’s interest in reaching a palatable solution—i.e., one that doesn’t involve increasing state revenues through taxes.
“In addition, such funding deals can be built upon, or can create, personal relationships, and in some ways, that’s an even bigger problem. We often feel like we owe something to people who help us out of a tight spot, and that feeling can become stronger when a personal affinity is involved.”
Nagel added, “That said, it’s conceivable that public officials can solicit donations without being beholden to the interests of the donors. In human behavior, practically anything is possible. It’s also conceivable that the private donors would have no personal agenda motivating them.” (The italics are Dr. Nagel’s.)
Nagel also had a broader concern about government having to seek donations for its operating expenses, that it is indicative of detachment of members of the public from their government and the erosion of the social compact.
“It’s regrettable that government officials are so willing to seek private funding for public works or any other enterprise in the public good. I wonder if the notion of ‘public good’ has so eroded among U.S. citizens that it’s beyond the pale to imagine that we would be called upon to support institutions or utilities that serve all of us.”