Does It Matter if Government Officials Double as Political Consultants?

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The LA Times brings news that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger paid his chief of staff Susan Kennedy $50,000 out of a campaign account for campaign work.

This is another example of a Schwarzenegger practice that drew lots of tsk-tsk-tsking from media and good government types.

The former governor conducted many ballot measure campaigns, and often used his gubernatorial staff to work on those campaigns.

Those staffers were then paid as consultants for campaign work. These staffers have gone to considerable lengths, taking time off from their government jobs when they do campaign work, and using separate phones for this work.

Despite such precautions, the fear from the ethically minded is that such payments are compromising on a couple of levels.

Government staffers should be devoted to serving the public, but their loyalties are divided when they are doing paid political work as well. And some feel that since donations from inidividuals and interest groups fund the political committees that pay these bills, Schwarzenegger's practice increases the chances of corruption.

My own take: the concerns are nonsense because they are divorced from the reality of governing California.

And that reality is that, to govern, a governor (or a legislator, for that matter) must engage directly and constantly with the initiative and referendum procdess.

The initiative, in particular, is used so often to address so many policy issues that a governor who didn't involve his or her staff in such campaigns simply wouldn't be doing his or her job.

The payments -- and the controversy around the use of staffers in ballot measure campaigns -- reflect not an ethical problem but a structural problem with how California's governing system is designed.

California foolishly treats the initiative and referendum campaigns as part of its political and election system, with all the rules of candidate campaigns.

In fact, such campaigns should be treated as if they were part of the government and legislation process.

Because they are -- initiatives are legislation, either new laws or constitutional amendments often proposed by the same interests and people who sponsor legislation within the Capitol.

If initiatives were seen properly as part of government and not as a form of election, it would be perfectly natural -- preferable even -- for government staffers to work on such campaigns while they are being paid by the public. Schwarzenegger's use of his own staff followed this logic.

It's time for his critics to admit that, in this at least, the former governor was right.

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