POSTED ON NOVEMBER 10, 2010:
Paving the Road to Political Perdition
Smell that smell? Just follow the money and find your candidate
What you saw in Election 2010 is just the beginning.
The hype called it a Republican tidal wave. But those of us with an understanding of history know party power ebbs and flows, and this time will be no different. Democrats dominated Oklahoma most of the 20th century. Now Republicans reign. Two years ago, President Obama sat atop the political world. Now, not so much. Two years from now ... who knows?
What we do know with certainty is this: Big money isn't just the mother's milk of politics any longer -- it's the big daddy. And it is putting our republic at risk.
Hyperbole? Think again. The voting public is over-the-top cynical about the corrupting influence of money in politics.
They were angry enough nationally to return control of the U.S. House to the GOP after just four years. They were angry enough in Oklahoma to wipe out a half-dozen incumbent Democratic lawmakers, most in districts that had never, ever elected a Republican.
There are myriad reasons for such deep discontent, but when you peel away the layers, it always comes back to money. And no wonder. In Oklahoma alone, even before this election year, wealthy special interests poured millions of dollars into legislative races. Just good-hearted people interested in good government? Spare me.
There's a reason we have $5.8 billion in tax breaks on the books, including $2 billion that never created a single job. We live in a pay-for-play world in which special interests contribute and lawmakers all-too-often respond with schemes that shift the burden of funding schools and other vital state services onto the backs of the average taxpayers and away from their wealthy benefactors.
It's a legalized looting of the state treasury. Thank you, sir, may I have another?
Lest you think I'm generalizing, consider what happened this past legislative session: In the midst of the worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression, state lawmakers were scrambling for ways to cut spending this year. Revenues were way down and cuts in services already were averaging 15 percent, but the state Constitution wisely requires a balanced budget. How to close the gap?
Lawmakers came up with a diabolically ingenious plan: In exchange for energy producers deferring payment on millions of dollars in tax credits for three years (when, hopefully, the economy has rebounded), lawmakers promised to pay 9-percent interest on the deferred handouts.
Nine percent? Are you kidding me? Have you checked CD rates at your local bank or credit union lately? They're typically paying about 1 percent. Yet our generous Legislature is giving their campaign financiers 9 percent interest -- and paying for it with taxpayer dollars?
Call it chutzpah. Or call it what it is: scandalous.
According to FollowTheMoney.org, oil and gas interests spent more than $1 million and sometimes more than $2 million on state level races in every year since 2002. Coincidence? Why not protect the taxpayers and declare the candy store -- aka the state treasury -- closed to such hanky panky? Because, as the old political saying goes, money talks and bullsh** walks.
So many of the TV ads you saw this election weren't financed by the candidates themselves. All those pro-Mary Fallin ads, attacking Jari Askins, were paid for by the Republican Governors Association. Rupert Murdock of Fox News infamy donated $1 million to the RGA's effort.
The Wall Street Journal reported just before the election that the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees had emerged as the biggest outside spender in 2010 -- ahead of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and "a flock of new Republican groups."
At least we know where the union money comes from -- working stiffs who join the union. How much of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's money came from foreign-based corporations hiding behind the chamber's effort to influence politics?
The problem isn't just that corporations often have huge amounts of cash to gain political advantage -- it's also that there's so little transparency. We often don't know who's behind these groups. And frankly, most Americans -- most Oklahomans -- don't have the time or won't take the time to be informed.
So the money flows. Into campaign accounts. Into lunches. Into golf outings and ball games. The Oklahoma Legislature is one of the nation's best paid, but few of its members can wean themselves from such goodies. Months after it was launched only three lawmakers have signed up for Common Cause Oklahoma's No Gifts registry (commoncause.org/OK/NoGifts) -- a very public, on-line vow-not-to-accept-anything-of-value pledge to attempt to diffuse lobbyists or others seeking to influence legislative decision-making.
The voting public rightly senses that the system is rigged. They're just not quite sure what to do about it.
The State Chamber spent more than $66,000 on ads for legislative candidates.
Both groups credited the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling with allowing them to influence an election that saw Republicans expand their legislative domination -- 70 of 101 Oklahoma House and 32 of 48 Oklahoma Senate seats.
"Democrats have corporate friends, too," said John Wood, a Common Cause board member who also holds a PhD in political science. "Corporations are very good at playing both sides. When they see a wave, they do a good job of pushing it that way.
"These are gifts with strings attached ... It manipulates and corrupts the whole process."
Even worse, it leaves the electorate feeling more powerless than ever.
"They have a megaphone," Wood said, "and you and I have a whisper or are silenced."
Sad to say, but it's probably going to take a corruption scandal of cataclysmic proportions to restore sanity and integrity to the system. It's not a question of if, but when.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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