Pay To Play: Corporations Pay For New GOP Governors’ Inaugural Balls To Gain Better Access

In the era of professed “austerity,” some Republican governors have found a better way to fund extravagance. Tapping into the well-heeled pockets of special interests, several Republican governors funded their inaugural bashes this year with corporate money. While inaugural activities are often paid through private donations instead of taxpayer funds, these governors are allowing corporations with a vested interest in policy outcomes from a friendly government to pay for their inaugural bashes.

Two weeks ago, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) spent $3 million in funds from Florida’s business interests that have “the most at stake in his administration,” including tobacco, real estate, gambling, and drug companies seeking specific regulatory advantages for their business. Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC) also received a big inaugural bash courtesy of private donations from Boeing, Duke Energy, and SCANA. Several other Republican governors are following suit. According to local reports, Govs. Rick Perry (TX), John Kasich (OH), Brian Sandoval (NV), Mary Fallin (OK), and Rick Snyder (MI), are the newest state executives to join the pay-to-play club:

Perry: Yesterday, Perry took the oath of office in a $2 million swearing-in society paid for by “oil executives, beer distributors, lobbyists and big-dollar campaign donors — many with interests before the state…In exchange, they are offered various levels of access.” Underwriters of his inauguration activities include “a host of energy interests with a stake in state tax incentives and environmental regulation — including some engaged in ‘fracking'” which “risks air and water pollution.” Exxon, Houston oil investor Jeff Hilderbrand, Chevron, and cigarette maker Altria are other “gold” and “silver” level donors underwriting Perry’s festivities.

Kasich: Kasich’s four-day, $1.15 million inaugural bash is being bankrolled mostly by “about 130 corporations that gave maximum $10,000 donations apiece.” According to the conservative Cincinnati Enquirer, “many of the top givers” — including automakers, banks, insurers, energy consultants, casinos owners, and major lobbying or law firms — “are likely to benefit from government policies and contracts, or are regulated by state agencies and state law.” In Cincinnati, those giving the maximum $10,000 include Duke Energy and Procter & Gamble Co.

Sandoval: “Recruited to run for governor by two of the state’s leading business lobbyists,” Sandoval hails from “Nevada’s leading industries and their veteran lobbyists who form the bedrock of influence in Carson City” and has been employed by one of Nevada’s largest lobbying firms Jones Vargas. Indeed, Vargas is among Pfizer, CVS, and other donors at the $10,000 and $5,000 level. According to the Las Vegas Sun, the list of Sandoval’s inaugural celebration “includes companies and interests with some of the thorniest issues before the Legislature next year” like Barrick Gold, a $25,000 donor who “is a top target for those who are fighting for more taxes to better fund state services.” The state’s Retailers Association donated $25,000 to give members direct access to Sandoval because “if something comes up later and he needs to make a decision, he knows who you are.”

Fallin: One unhappy donor told Red Dirt Report that the seats for the inauguration of Oklahoma’s first female governor “were sold out (the tables) to corporations before the invitations even went out.” The list of underwriters and sponsors “reads like a who’s who of Oklahoma’s corporate world, from the health care industry to railroads to Indian tribes to retail heavyweights.” Some of the donors include OK Bankers Association, Chesapeake Energy, Michelin North America, Union Pacific Railroad, T-Mobile, and FirstBank. Looking at the list, the donor who obtained the list said, “She certainly knows who is buttering her bread.”

Snyder: As a candidate, Snyder lampooned the influence of special interests in government. However, his $1.3 million inaugural bash was funded by at least 75 corporate sponsors including Anheuser-Busch, Meijer, Dow Chemical, General Motors Company, Huntington Bank, Pfizer Company, and PNC Bank. As the American Independent notes, Meijer holds the record for the largest campaign finance law violation fine ever handed down by the state and Dow Chemical contaminated virtually the entire Saginaw River watershed. The owner of the state’s largest foreclosure firm who was involved in writing at least one piece of legislation dealing with foreclosures also is a sponsor of the bash.

As Matt Yglesias notes, this arrangement looks “a lot more like bribery than do conventional campaign finance shenanigans.” Certainly, campaign contributions by corporations — especially after the Citizens United decision — are more than common practice these days. However, the inaugural galas are neither a campaign nor public event; it’s a private benefit with the potential for a huge payoff.

ThinkProgress intern Paul Breer contributed research to this post.