Our Views: End payola on council

Every year, in her Baton Rouge council district, Tara Wicker spends hundreds of dollars on Christmas presents for needy children. This would be very admirable, if it were her money. But it is the taxpayers’ money, spent to make a politician look good.

Wicker is not alone on the Metro Council in making a generous charity buy with public funds. But we agree with some members who question using taxpayer dollars for charitable purposes.

In some cases, members are sponsoring back-to-school events or other community gatherings that do not relate to the business of the Metro Council. In some cases, members give to organized charities like food banks or other worthy causes.

What is the common thread in this political payola? It redounds to the benefit of the politician, even if their personal involvement is limited to getting the gift past the Parish Attorney’s Office.

Occasionally, the attorneys will block some particular gift. The rather murky grounds: Assistant Parish Attorney Ashley Beck stated that public funds can be used for “social welfare” to “support the needy” if there is a public purpose and if participants are screened to determine that they qualify as needy.

The public purpose here is politics, and the taxpayer is funding a political boost for incumbent officeholders. While the sums might be small in terms of the council budget, perhaps $1,000 here or there, they add up. And in any case, we don’t see the public purpose in what is almost pure advertising for incumbent officeholders.

“If I want to donate to a charity, I’ll donate myself,” council member Joel Boé said. “I don’t expect, nor would I want my tax dollars to be used for charitable organizations, albeit, many of those organizations are very deserving. But these are taxpayer dollars being used for them.”

Indeed they are. And we hope that the council will vote to end this practice.

Further, we caution members about using their offices to raise money for deserving charities. If a council member does not get public dollars for a back-to-school event, the member might want to raise it from well-heeled friends. If those friends turn out to be involved in business before the Metro Council, we think that people will rightly wonder if this was a case of charity or an instance of influence-peddling.

We are not urging Scrooge-like economy with public dollars. If the Metro Council as a body meets to fund a program or nonprofit that is responsible to a city department for the expenditure, and meets a public purpose, few eyebrows are likely to be raised, unless the diversion of money undermines the core functions of city-parish government.

What should be curbed is politicians acting like Santa Claus on the taxpayer dime.