Limit donations from contractors; State mowing contract a reason why

Money sharpens the senses.

That's one lesson to take away from the story, recounted by reporter John Cheves, of how changes in the Transportation Cabinet's process for awarding mowing contracts benefited Swartz Mowing.

Another is that Kentucky needs laws that restrict firms and individuals who do business with the state from contributing money to politicians and political parties.

Called "pay-to-play" laws, they typically restrict people with significant interest in companies, and their family members, from making political donations while competing for or carrying out state contracts. The length of the prohibition and the penalties for violations vary, but the idea is to decouple contributions from an inside track on state contracts.

No one made the case for these restrictions as persuasively as Neal Swartz, vice president of the mowing company. "When you don't give them anything, they don't even look at you," he told the cabinet's inspector general during an investigation.

The Swartz family gave a total of $11,000 to Gov. Steve Beshear's 2007 and 2011 campaigns and, in the months surrounding the 2011 governor's race, gave $40,000 to the state Democratic Party.

Swartz wanted the cabinet to reverse changes in the bidding process that had resulted in more competition and lower costs on mowing contracts. "I pushed and I pushed to hopefully make 'em see what I see," he told Cheves.

They saw. Under Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock, the changes were reversed, the number of bidders shrank and the value of Swartz's mowing contracts jumped 23 percent. "Swartz got what he paid for politically by voicing his concern and having someone voice that concern to us," Hancock told investigators.

Cabinet maintenance officials, who objected to the change, didn't do so well. One of them told the inspector general that he and his colleagues asked for a chance to express their concerns to cabinet higher-ups but they never even got a meeting.

With costs mounting and the inspector general's report in hand, the cabinet ultimately reversed course again, reinstating the more competitive process with some changes.

The governor's office insists there was no political quid pro quo. But clearly the Swartz family — Sonny Swartz, Neal's father and the president of the mowing company, pleaded guilty in 2007 to conspiracy to buy votes for the then-Bath County judge-executive in exchange for preference on FEMA contracts — has learned that money is the magic that makes politicians "see what I see."

This story does nothing to instill confidence that public officials are blind and deaf to everything but the public's interest when spending tax dollars. Yet it is hardly unique to Democratic administrations.

When Republican Ernie Fletcher was governor, he toured the state, handing out those fake giant checks for road projects, lingering in town for private fundraising gatherings where road contractors contributed to his re-election campaign.

Pay-to-play bills are not unheard of here, either. The trouble is that political parties support them only when the opposition has the governor's seat, and with it a huge influence on state spending.

The most recent attempt at pay-to-play legislation was in 2009. It was introduced by Republican Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown and it was passed by the Republican Senate only to languish in committee in the Democratic House.

There is a lot to be said against one party controlling both houses of the General Assembly, but — assuming it doesn't have the governor's chair, too — that might be the only way Kentucky ever gets legislation to rein in the pay-to-play chumminess that heightens political senses and infects our public life.