Government as One Giant In-Kind Contribution to the Governor

Sometimes it seems as if, having lost our grip on core principles, we’re tangling ourselves up in our representative democracy.  As we forget why things that used to seem simply inappropriate became that way, we’re weaving complex new schemes to try to keep corruption at bay.

Those are the thoughts that came to mind upon reading a press release from Rhode Island Trucking Association:

The Rhode Island Trucking Association (RITA) today questioned whether the standing weekly appearance by RIDOT Director, Peter Alviti, on the Gene Valicenti Show should be considered a form of a ‘in-kind’ contribution to the Raimondo campaign. Typically appearing between 8am – 9am every Thursday, the RIDOT Director is on air for approximately 30-45 minutes. During this time Mr. Alviti, praises the progress of RhodeWorks as an accomplishment of the Raimondo administration with little or no opposition from the show’s host. RITA suggests this unpaid airtime is clearly intended to influence potential voters and therefore should be considered a form of unpaid advertising airtime and in violation of campaign contribution laws.

This complaint gets dangerously close to implying a need for a “fairness doctrine” that requires news media to give present every side on an issue if it is going to present any.  Yet, RITA is not wrong to complain.

The first thread of the problem is that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo has gone completely out of bounds in her use of government agencies to promote herself.  I noted this early on when the Commerce Corporation put out a press release headlined, “Raimondo Poised to Fix Rhode Island.”  (The release has since been removed from the site, but this archived “news” page shows the link.)  That language was a stark and undeniable declaration that Commerce RI could no longer be considered in any sense an independent agency — not only from the governor’s office, but from her campaign, as well.

This practice moved on to corrupt the Department of Transportation when it began printing the governor’s name on every RhodeWorks sign (which the federal government subsequently forbade), and ties in with campaign videos giving the governor total credit for fixing roads.  One suspects the UHIP system would similarly be branded as Raimondo’s work had she not bungled it so terribly.

In this context, giving the head of RIDOT regular air time to praise the governor and her works seems less like a bureaucrat keeping the people informed and more like a campaign agent promoting a candidate.

From the other side — the second thread of the problem — our campaign finance laws have become like a Medieval philosophical question.  My local taxpayer group, for instance, recently learned from the Board of Elections Campaign Finance Unit that it is the responsibility of every candidate for every office in Rhode Island to research every bit of support that anybody might have offered that might have cost any money and declare it as an in-kind contribution.

So, a hyper-local grassroots group has to develop a formula to allocate its spending to individual candidates running for a local board (even if it is essentially powerless), and those community-minded volunteers have a legal obligation to find out their allocations and report them.  But the highly paid head of a government agency can go on air weekly in multiple venues to promote the most powerful executive in state government, and that’s just the ordinary course of business, subject to no reporting or limits.  This state of affairs is corrosive of our representative democracy.

One solution would be to forbid government employees, including department heads, from saying anything that might be construed as promotion of a politician, and to give the Board of Elections authority to judge their every media appearance.  A better solution would be to return to a level of civic awareness in which we understand that a governor’s employees using their public roles to promote her is not appropriate, and a local candidate’s failure to calculate every instance of support to the penny is not a scandal.

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