Backsliding away

City Council should be focused on the looming budget crisis and trying to prevent tax hikes that will stunt the city economy in the long run. But instead, Council is quietly trying to push through a slew of ethics and campaign-finance bills that threaten to do more harm than good.

A package of bills sponsored by Majority Leader Marian B. Tasco and cosigned by 14 of her 16 colleagues is up for a hearing on Wednesday. The proposals are being promoted as a practical response to recommendations from a mayoral task force.

City Councilwoman Marian B. Tasco is the sponsor of a slew of campign finance and ethics bills that appear to create more problems than they solve.

In some small ways, that’s true. The proposal to register lobbyists is certainly a worthy one.

But at the same time, the overhaul would permit more money to flow into races for Council and mayor — while drastically weakening penalties for violating the city’s campaign donor limits. For instance, candidates could tap donors for more money to cover legal expenses. That’s not reform.

A troubling companion proposal would upend a decades-old ban on city employees’ working on political races. Council should scrap this bad idea now. Such a move would further blur the line on patronage and politics that already undermines many good-government efforts.

It was just a few years ago that several good ethics and campaign-finance reform measures were passed in response to the culture of corruption and pay-to-play politics that had taken hold at City Hall.

If anything, the current package of bills seems designed to loosen some of those restrictions rather than improve upon them. Even more alarming, the complicated measures are moving through Council at breakneck speed without much public input.

Fortunately, Councilman Bill Green says he expects a number of changes to be made before there is a vote. But the broad and complex scope of the bills are difficult to fix on the fly. It would be better to go slow and take the issues one at a time after the budget is sorted out.

Also missing from the debate is Mayor Nutter. Ethics and campaign-finance issues were the cornerstone of his campaign. But Council has taken control of the issue, while the mayor sits back.

To be sure, Nutter has improved accountability at City Hall — with the work of his inspector general, and his push for reform of the Clerk of Courts office and the city’s tax assessment office.

It was Nutter’s task force on ethics and campaign finance that started the debate over tightening loopholes in election and ethics rules. Yet the mayor apparently was blindsided by Council’s proposals and has yet to make a public case for or against the bills.

For their part, one indication of Council’s seriousness about cleaning up government will be whether proposals by Councilman Frank Rizzo are passed.

Rizzo previously proposed bills that would ban gifts, set antinepotism rules, limit officials’ outside jobs, and whittle away at incumbents’ advantage in building campaign war chests. These are all good, solid measures that could have been voted on months ago.

Instead, the latest package of bills appears to be a case of one step up and three back. City Hall doesn’t need a return to business as usual.