Cleaning up City Hall

The Baltimore Sun

Whatever the ultimate dispositions of the criminal cases against Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton and developer Ronald H. Lipscomb, it is clear that something needs to be done to diminish the corrosive combination of development, money and politics.

While it may be impossible to prevent developers from secretly lavishing cash and gifts on politicians or paying for political polls - as Mr. Lipscomb is alleged to have done for, respectively, Ms. Dixon and Ms. Holton - steps can be taken to counter the widespread pay-to-play perception when it comes to major city real estate and construction projects.

For starters, Baltimore's elected leaders could pledge not to accept campaign contributions from any business or developer receiving tax breaks from the city. While undeniably costly to campaign coffers, the potential payoff could be large in restoring public confidence in government decision-making and erasing long-standing doubts about the underlying motives in approving such subsidies.

The principle that those benefiting from government largesse should not unduly influence the political process could also be codified in legislation at the state and local level. The legislation could prohibit any company or its principals receiving tax breaks from the city from contributing to the political campaigns of any elected city official during the terms of the breaks.

Thus, for example, companies granted a 20-year (lowered) payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) could be prohibited from contributing to campaigns of city officials for two decades. The penalty for violations could be the loss of the tax break - a potentially stronger deterrent than any of the sanctions on the books.

In the case of one-time subsidies, such as discounted land or buildings, companies could be prohibited from contributing to campaigns for a set period of time - say, 10 years.

Moreover, the legislation could contain a provision that beginning in 2012, no individuals or corporate officers who contributed to political campaigns in the previous three years would be eligible to receive new city development tax breaks.

Measures to restrict campaign contributions should not be undertaken lightly. The courts have long held that giving money to political campaigns is a form of free speech. At the same time, they have also recognized a public interest in placing some limits on such contributions - hence, state and federal limits on the amounts of such contributions.

Of course, such measures would be voluntary in the sense that a developer could avoid any restrictions on making campaign contributions simply by not applying for tax breaks.

Attaching strings to city subsidies is hardly without precedent. Many inducements to businesses and developers contain conditions such as the creation of a set number of new jobs; as recently as two years ago, the city passed inclusionary-housing legislation requiring that residential developers who receive city subsidies make a portion of their units affordable to low- and moderate-income households.

Whether through voluntary pledges or by law, restrictions on campaign contributions by those receiving city tax breaks might even be welcomed by the developers themselves, who might appreciate being freed from what has become a de facto cost of doing business in Baltimore.

And while such a sea change in that way of doing business may be difficult to enact or even envision, it is surely necessary. If nothing else, the events of recent days highlight the fact that the need for making Baltimore a "cleaner" city go beyond picking up trash on the streets.

Eric Siegel, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, is journalist-in-residence at the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies. His e-mail is

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