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Mills overreacted to Poloncarz’s offer of a deal to move forward on pet issues

Whoever it was who likened legislating to sausage-making – because you don’t want to know how it’s accomplished – might have been listening to the voicemail that Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz left with the chairman of the Legislature.

In it, Poloncarz offered $800,000 in road paving work in John J. Mills’ legislative district in exchange for support on other matters. Mills, a Republican from Orchard Park, took offense and made the private message public, thereby ruining, Poloncarz says, his relationship with the county executive.

It is indeed dismaying to witness the kind of horse trading that goes on behind the scenes, and Poloncarz was unwise to leave his offer in a voicemail. But there is also this: Not only is it not illegal, it’s routine. Poloncarz said such dealmaking works both ways, with legislators holding up important matters of public health in exchange for promises of public works improvements in their districts.

Indeed, it’s a fair argument that the failure of that kind of dealmaking in Washington has helped make Congress particularly ineffective in recent years.

It would be better if decisions on roadwork involved some kind of formula-based system that identified roads most in need of repair and directed county money to them. Following that formula would drain the politics out of those allocations and help to ensure that an area badly in need of roadwork – or other government attention – wasn’t snubbed because one officeholder was doing a favor for another one.

But that’s the nature of politics and Mills’ sharing of the voicemail seems more like a political maneuver than public service. It will also make it more difficult for him to represent the residents of his district.

There is, admittedly, a thin line that separates “horse trading” from “bribery,” which Mills accused Poloncarz of engaging in. It’s a serious charge, with a legal definition, that should not be made lightly or in an effort to embarrass.

Even horse trading can have its limits, and if Poloncarz didn’t cross the line in basing roadwork priorities on it, he came uncomfortably close, regardless of what may have occurred in the past. But some sausages are uglier than others.

And that’s the bottom line. Politics is about making things happen and that requires relationships with some fundamental element of trust. That’s where Mills failed. We’re not sure who will trust him going forward, but Poloncarz may not be among them.

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