My Turn: Favors and payoffs are the norm in politics

Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The spate of indictments against current and former lawmakers is no doubt saddening to most Alaskans.

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But anyone who follows politics enough to be reading the editorial page in this paper knows that favors and payoffs in our political system are the norm, not the exception. It's the way the game is played by the folks that can afford to play. Go to any committee hearing in the Capitol, and you'll be fighting to get a seat against a horde of lobbyists that sit silently in the audience, watching their money work.

Most of us would agree that trading political favors for personal gain is unethical. Yet nine times out of 10, if the same acts that led to the recent indictments were committed with a bit more transparency, they would be no less unethical but completely legal. Why are we shocked when a legislator promises a vote or sponsors a bill in return for money or other compensation offered behind closed doors; yet totally complacent when they openly sponsor a bill that benefits a business partner or an industry that contributes to their re-election campaign?

Case in point: Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, offered the following quote to the press on the charges being brought against his former colleagues: "It's unimaginable that a person would compromise his integrity for a trumped-up flooring bill."

Unimaginable? Ramras has sponsored several bills in this legislative session attacking major provisions of the cruise ship initiative passed by a majority of Alaskans in August 2006. Are we to assume it is simply a coincidence that Ramras, as a hotel and restaurant owner, receives business every year from the cruise industry, or that cruise line executives living in Florida gave him thousands of dollars in campaign contributions in the last election? What I find unimaginable is that Ramras, who is not alone in working privately with the cruise industry while publicly pushing legislation on its behalf, has the gall to point an unethical finger at someone else!

Ramras' activities are not illegal, as far as I know, but from an ethical perspective they are certainly just as questionable. Yet at some point, the responsibility for the behavior of our politicians must fall on you and me. We elect people like Ramras to public office over and over again, and allow them to pass laws that place the interests of billion-dollar corporations above our own.

Several states have recently passed laws guaranteeing sufficient campaign financing to candidates that forego all private donations. In many areas of the country, candidates are literally taking the money out of politics by choosing to reject private funding and challenging their opponents to do the same. Alaska needs to follow their lead.

Any society where corporate money runs the government, regardless of whether it comes in through the front door or the back is a corporatocracy, not a democracy. In recent years, the oil and cruise ship industries have been the two most blatant promoters of corporatocracy in Alaska. We need to get the big money out of our political system before it is too late: There is no more profound threat to our nation and our way of life than the selling of our elections and lawmaking powers.

• Russ Maddox is a Seward resident.

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