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Taking note . . .

Observations about public affairs in the nationís capital
by the editor of The Common Denominator

SHENANIGANS: Lost, apparently, in the public attention given to the D.C. City Council's June 7 passage of campaign finance disclosure requirements for so-called "exploratory committees" -- though the legislation contains no penalties for non-compliance -- was the introduction of another bill dealing with politics and money.

Ward 5's Vincent Orange and the council's three newest members -- Ward 8's Marion Barry, at-large member Kwame Brown and Ward 7's Vincent Gray -- are proposing that local elected officials be permitted to accept contributions totaling up to $100,000 annually for their "citizen service programs" and to spend that same amount each year.

Many residents use a different term to describe what are widely known as elected officials' "constituent services funds." They call them "slush funds."

The proposed legislation is being co-sponsored by Chairman Linda Cropp and Ward 2's Jack Evans, the council's official chairman pro tempore, and has been referred to Orange's Committee on Government Operations for further consideration.

The law currently sets a $40,000 annual limit on both contributions to and expenditures from these funds and prohibits their use for "political purposes." The mayor, council members and the District's "shadow" congressional representative and senators are permitted to maintain such funds and must file periodic reports on their financial activities with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance.

The proposed law also would increase individual annual cash contribution limits from $400 to $1,000, but would leave intact the current $1,000 annual limit on an individual's contributions of personal property.

What constitutes a "political purpose" has always been ill-defined in the law. When elected officials use such funds to help cash-strapped constituents pay heating bills or family-related funeral expenses, are they doing so to curry favor and essentially "buy" votes in the next election? It's a fine line. And could $1,000 cash changing hands, especially if bundled with others' $1,000 cash contributions, influence legislative votes?

The bill's current sponsors need the support of only one more council member to have enough votes for passage.

OUR ANNIVERSARY: This issue marks the start of The Common Denominator's eighth year of publication as D.C.'s hometown newspaper. Many of our readers are aware of the painful personal challenge that yours truly continues to endure, as a middle-class D.C. resident, to keep this award-winning newspaper afloat. Often during the past seven years, our small staff has been sustained by our readers' acknowledgment that what we do day-to-day to cover local news is important to your lives. We appreciate the support of our loyal readers and advertisers as we continue to struggle to expand our paid circulation and our advertising base in one of the country's most competitive newspaper markets.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator