Monday, August 20, 2007

Influence-buying and lobbyists in Pennsylvania

This editorial was published Sunday in The Mercury. It sums up the need for campaign finance reform and open government in Pennsylvania, where lobbyists control Harrisburg. Politicians won't act on these important reforms unless the people demand it. Where does your legislator stand? How money has your legislator accepted from lobbyists? You need to know these things before the 2008 legislative elections. Here's the editorial:

Campaign finance reforms separate money and influence

"You change how we raise money ... you will fundamentally change the entire legislative process."

Rep. David Levdansky, an Allegheny County Democrat, told a House panel this week that his bill for campaign finance reform is an attempt to change influence-buying and lobbyist pressures in Harrisburg that are at the core of criticisms of this state’s legislature.

Calling campaign finance reform "the mother of all reforms," he said that changing the way political campaigns are funded is a critical step toward renewing the public's trust in state government.

"You change how we raise money ... you will fundamentally change the entire legislative process," he told the panel.

Levdansky is not the only lawmaker pushing for finance reform in the wake of public scandals and legislative missteps that have shaken voters’ confidence in state government.

Levdansky, one of at least three lawmakers sponsoring bills to impose stricter limits on campaign fundraising and spending, acknowledged that change has been a tough sell over the last 20 years, mainly because leaders of both parties were satisfied with the current system.

Legislative leaders like state Sen. Vincent Fumo -- the Philadelphia Democrat under federal indictment for fraud and tax evasion -- have built a career on their ability to raise and leverage campaign contributions for themselves and others.

Placing limits on campaign contributions erodes the power that well-connected lawmakers, including Gov. Ed Rendell, hold in swaying those around them for support on issues.

Candidates need money to wage campaigns, and as the need for that money grows, so grows the importance to a candidate of campaign contributions.

But with momentum building to make state government more open and accountable to the public, the movement to reform campaign finance rules has also grown. At least four bills have been introduced in the House this year and a proposal has ben floated by the governor. They call for widely differing limits on contributions.

The contribution limits proposed under Levdansky's bill would range from $200 per election from individuals to candidates for the Legislature, county judgeships and local offices to $20,000 per year from an individual or political action committee to a state party committee.

Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, is proposing to limit contributions to $2,300 per individual and $5,000 per political action committee for candidates in all state and local races.

Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, has proposed public financing of races for governor and lieutenant governor and fundraising and spending limits on candidates who accept public money. His bill is modeled after a New Jersey law that instituted public financing in 1977 for gubernatorial candidates who adhere to spending limits.

Vitali said public financing would lessen the influence of special interest groups in elections and encourage more people to run for public office. Under his bill, the public dollars would come from the state budget and a $5 contribution made through a checkoff box on state income tax returns.

"We do want races to be about ideas, not about who can raise the most money," Vitali said.

Rendell has proposed a $5,000 contribution limit for individuals and political action committees for statewide offices and big-city executive contests. A $2,000 limit would apply to all other races, including those for seats in the Legislature.

The Vitali proposal offers the most potential to make a real difference. It would remove power from special interest groups and open up elections to people who are not prepared to forfeit their life savings or sell their integrity just to buy a few TV ads.

But the Vitali proposal also is the most radical, and we have seen how radical reforms fare in Pennsylvania (abolish the property tax, include legislative records in open records laws, etc.).

As Levdansky said, these proposals are not just about setting a limit on how much money a candidate can raise. They are aimed at reforming the system, top to bottom, but taking money out of the power equation.

Quite simply, it's about time.

Copyright 2007, The Mercury

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