Gray should avoid private transition funds

Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 11:08 PM

AS COMMENDABLE as it is that Vincent C. Gray (D) wants to save taxpayers the cost of his transition into the mayor's office, plans to let private donors pay are problematic. Legitimate, reasonable costs of changing governments should be borne by government to avoid even the appearance of private parties seeking to buy influence with a new administration. Mr. Gray should rethink his plan or, at the very least, limit donations to conform to those that are allowed for political contributions.

Mr. Gray said he doesn't want to add to the $175 million shortfall in the current District budget. In 2006, when Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) took over from outgoing Mayor Anthony A. Williams, $250,000 in transition costs was allocated by the D.C. Council, and Mr. Fenty ended up spending $150,000. Mr. Gray's campaign, by contrast, has established a nonprofit group to collect donations up to $25,000 per donor with the promise that the names would be made public on a regular basis. This presumably would be in addition to funds that are traditionally raised to pay for inaugural activities.

It's not unheard of for incoming officials to use excess campaign or private dollars to help pay for transitions, but Mr. Gray's plans, a first for the District, appear to be more extensive. Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), for example, was given a public budget of $353,600 but shaved costs (an estimated $80,000) by paying employee salaries out of campaign funds and allowing a moving company to donate the costs of his family's move into the Executive Mansion. President Obama set up a transition project but limited donations to $5,000 and prohibited contributions from corporations, labor unions, lobbyists and political action groups.

D.C. law limits campaign contributions from individuals, corporations and labor unions to $2,000. Since lawmakers clearly wanted to guard against undue influence from those with deep pockets, it would seem prudent to apply the same limits to any money raised for transition costs. It's no insult to Mr. Gray's integrity to suggest that the D.C. Council memorialize the rules so that everyone - including future executives - understands what is allowable.

We also have to wonder whether it's possible to rein in the costs associated with changing governments. How exactly did Mr. Fenty spend $150,000? We've asked but haven't gotten any answers. Mr. Gray has not said how much money he thinks he will need. Maryland, the District's larger neighbor to the north, seems to get by on less. A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said there is a $50,000 appropriation in the budget during years in which there could be a change in control. If the incumbent is reelected, the funds revert to the state's General Fund. Costs of a new governor moving into Government House appear to be extra, but that's not an issue in the District, which lacks a mayoral mansion.

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