“ I would rather err on the side of being too generous.”

That is what Columbus City Councilman Richard Sensenbrenner said in 1999. He wasn’t talking about generosity to help the less fortunate or the working people of Columbus. City Council had just approved tax abatements totaling $3 million for the Brewery district. It was pointed out by opponents that the area was not blighted, and would be developed anyhow, without any tax abatements. That is when Mr. Sensenbrenner made the statement quoted above. Coincidently, the beneficiaries of the abatements, Casto Development and Schottenstein, are among the biggest political campaign contributors. Combined, they gave more than $112,000 from 1998 through 2000 to Columbus City Council members and Mayors Coleman and Lashutka. Capital Square Ltd., a business subsidiary of Dispatch publishing, was a partner with Schottenstein in the Brewery district deal. Over $53 million in tax abatements were approved from 1998 to 2000 for companies that contributed to political campaigns. The political campaigns of the public officials that granted the abatements.

Big Contributors

Of all the money that Mayors Coleman and Lashutka and council members received in campaign contributions during the three-year period, only 15 percent came from individual donations of less than 500 dollars. Government at all levels has become ever more corrupt, ever more dependent upon, and beholden to, wealthy special interests. Those interests are most always corporate.


Progressives know that in our system, access to government and to elected officials is bought and paid for by campaign contributions. Most people who take even a rudimentary interest in politics know this, regardless of their political leanings. Any democracy that values freedom as an ideal should be accessible at the grassroots level, by all of its citizens. Campaign finance reform has become a major tool in that effort. Comprehensive campaign finance laws that limit contributions will help over time. As long as they are written well, provide for penalties, and include reporting guidelines.

Conflicts of Interest

But it is rare, if ever, that campaign finance initiatives contain conflict-of-interest provisions. Of the 48 tax abatements granted by the city from 1998 to 2000, almost half were to entities that contributed to Columbus City Council members or the two mayors. If you include money from those entities that received TIFs (Tax-Increment Financing), “Economic Development Subsidies,” and unbid contracts, the vast majority of campaign funds come from those doing business with the city.

A typical campaign finance law will not prevent elected officials from gaining campaign advantage from those who receive public benefit. As a matter of fact, such practices might increase, since contribution limits would be imposed. Elected officials may well grant even more abatements, TIFS, “Economic Development Subsidies,” and unbid contracts in an effort to maintain their coffers with additional, but smaller, contributions.

So what can be done?

Fortunately, a group in California, called The Oaks Project, has been confronting this problem and has been successful in getting Taxpayer Protection ordinances passed in several cities, including San Francisco and Santa Monica. These laws forbid public officials from receiving campaign advantages from entities that they vote to grant public benefits.

A draft of a campaign finance proposal has been produced in Columbus. It is based on the Cincinnati ordinance that recently was enacted. It also includes many of the Taxpayer Protection provisions of the Oaks Project. It limits political contributions, sets reporting requirements (including those of independent expenditures), and provides penalties for exceeding and not reporting contribution limits. It also would create a Columbus Election Committee to administer the law. Public officials who voted to approve a tax abatement, TIF, “Economic Development Subsidy,” or an unbid contract would be prohibited from excepting any campaign advantage or offers of employment from any companies or entities that received them for a period of one year after leaving office, or five years while still holding public office. Public benefit would mean money or any personal benefit. Honorariums would be permitted if they were for no more than one hundred dollars. A prominent and highly regarded attorney is in possession of the document and is reading it over. In this proposal we declare:

The use or disposition of public assets are often tainted by conflicts of interest among local public officials entrusted with their management and control. Such assets should be strictly on the merits for the benefit of the public, and irrespective of the separate personal or financial interests of involved public officials. We find that public decisions made regarding the granting of tax abatements, TIFS, “economic development subsidies,” and unbid contracts and business arrangements have often been made with the expectation of, and subsequent receipt of, private benefits from those so assisted to involved elected public officials.

Will this ever become law?

Frankly, it won’t be easy. City Council asked the electorate to pass a charter amendment several years back, but the law only gave Council, not the citizens, the power to enact campaign finance limits. This would take a citizen-led Charter amendment petition to enact without Council support. And the Council hasn’t even instituted any of its own proposals that a panel it appointed said it should. Change is never easy. Especially when so many roadblocks are erected to prevent change. But the more organizations that support this, the more likely someone on Council will introduce it.

This proposal, named the Campaign Finance and Taxpayer Protection Ordinance for the City of Columbus, Ohio, would also provide for electronic filing, so anyone could find out what candidates received and from what entities. Campaign donation limits, by the way, are standard at the state and federal level, but the city of Columbus has no limits. It is time the public officials who grant public benefits are less generous to big campaign donors but more generous to the school children of Columbus, who are deprived of the funds that would be paid by those granted the public benefits. This would not prohibit tax abatements and other tax handouts to business interests. It would address the conflicts of interest concerning them, to make sure any granted are not due to campaign influence.

If you would like to know more about the proposal, please contact

If you would like to know more about the Democratic Socialists of America, please contact Reg Dyck: or Simone Morgen:

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