Jan 3, 2015 10:56 AM

Governors' inaugurals fueled by political donors

The Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) When it comes to parties, ringing in the new year has nothing on the swearing-in soirees for governors across the country.

In Texas, organizers are hoping to raise $4 million to celebrate the incoming governor and are planning a concert headlined by Lady Antebellum, a parade through the state capital and a barbecue with four tons of brisket. Supporters of re-elected Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are scheduling a series of events that include a "black tie optional" gala funded in part through sponsorship packages costing up to $30,000 each.

Inaugural activities celebrating the newly elected Democratic governor in Pennsylvania will cost donors up to $50,000 apiece and include an evening "Let's Get Started" bash, with "celebratory attire" recommended.

Eleven new governors are taking office this month, and nearly two dozen others are renewing their oaths for second, third or in the case of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad sixth terms. Many will celebrate with chart-topping bands and blowout balls, with much of the bill footed by the same supporters who bankrolled their victorious campaigns.

In many states, corporate money that was banned before Election Day is allowed to cover the tab for inaugural parties.

Critics see the events as another means for corporations and wealthy individuals to curry political favor with the state's highest office, and in many cases without the transparency required by usual campaign finance laws.

"It's all part of the system of cronyism," said Craig McDonald, executive director of the left-leaning watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. "It's more unsettling than campaigns because the rules are much looser. It allows corporations and others to spend more money."

Not all governors are tossing fancy parties.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, began his second term with a simple swearing-in and speech at One World Trade Center. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican who will take office with his state facing a $1.5 billion budget shortfall, also is going low-key, with a modest reception at the Capitol.

Other governors are making the most of the occasion and, in the process, soliciting donations from the types of people and business entities that typically seek to influence legislation and state regulations.

Organizers behind the celebrations for Texas Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, a Republican, are trying to raise $4 million, a record amount for a gubernatorial inauguration in the state. Leading up to the finale by country superstar group Lady Antebellum is a downtown parade and the same barbecue specialists that catered both of George W. Bush's presidential inaugurations.

Owners of the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Texans, as well as Walmart heiress Alice Walton, are among those steering Abbott's inaugural committee. They also gave to his campaign.

Like most states, Texas does not require public disclosure of the contributors to inaugural festivities. Financial limits that keep big money in check during campaigns typically do not apply.

In states where donors are disclosed, either because of state reporting requirements or voluntary releases by the governor, corporations are shown to play a major role.

Blue Cross Blue Shield and shoe maker New Balance each have given $25,000 toward the inaugural celebration of Massachusetts Gov.-elect Charlie Baker, a Republican.

The inaugural committee established for another Republican, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, took contributions ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 each from such companies as Duke Energy, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Altria, the nation's largest cigarette maker, for her 2011 swearing-in festivities. Her campaign manager, Tim Pearson, says Haley's supporters are seeking donations in the same range for events surrounding this year's inauguration on Jan. 14.

In Florida, where re-elected Gov. Rick Scott scaled back from the inauguration festivities he held four years ago, the committee overseeing his inaugural activities this time is still raising nearly $800,000. That includes $100,000 from the Florida Insurance Council and others with interests before the state.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, celebrated her inauguration on New Year's Day with a ball headlined by country music group Lonestar. Danny Diaz, a Martinez campaign spokesman, said the ball was being funded entirely by private donations and that the amounts would be disclosed later.

Many inaugural fundraising committees ultimately make at least some financial information public, even if it's incomplete.

Aides to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said he planned to disclose the donors to his swearing-in activities. His inauguration includes a concert from country star Alan Jackson and Atlanta-based Coca Cola producing a special bottle.

Deal, a Republican, was criticized in 2011 for not detailing how his inaugural money was spent, but he did disclose donor names afterward. AT&T and Cigna, a health insurer, were among those making contributions.

He and other governors throwing big parties reject suggestions of influence-buying and say private donors are buying nothing more than a good time for everyone.

"This privately-funded gala celebration is a way to thank Georgians in every corner of their state for their support of the governor and the rest of our statewide elected officials," Deal spokeswoman Jennifer Talaber said.

Washington is among the few states that have taken steps to curb the potential for influence-buying in inaugural celebrations.

Its inaugural balls are planned by a non-partisan committee of citizen volunteers, with all costs covered by the price of admission. Corporate sponsors such as Microsoft or Bank of America sometimes pay for their own receptions beforehand for VIP-attendees, said Dan Neuhauser, president of the Governor's Inaugural Ball Committee.

"We don't take any money from political groups," he said. "Everybody can come together without having a cause on their shoulder. They can just have a good time."


Associated Press writers Seanna Adcox in Columbia, South Carolina; Bob Christie in Phoenix; Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Florida; Kathleen Foody in Atlanta; Peter Jackson in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington; Steve LeBlanc in Boston; Kerry Lester in Springfield, Illinois; Susan Montoya in Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Michael Virtanen in Albany, New York, contributed to this report.


Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber


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