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Saturday, May 13, 2006
Posted 11:02 PM by

Pennsylvania: Corrupt and malcontented

TODAY'S ISSUE: CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM Pennsylvania has no limits on what someone can contribute to a political campaign or how much can be spent, and there are no bills calling for statewide reforms. Two experiments are proposed, but both are limited to Philadelphia.

RANTER'S NOTE: Tuesday is election day in Pennsylvania. To better prepare you for pushing the electronic buttons in a new-fangled voting booth, I've decided to look at an issue each day that you might want to factor into your decisions.

"Pennsylvania is one of only a handful of states without any meaningful campaign finance reforms. The state has no contribution limits, no spending limits, and no provisions for public financing of campaigns. Yet all three are important components of any real effort to return control of the political process to the people. ... If Pennsylvania is going to take action to clean up its election process, and the legislative process that results, it needs to take that action now."

State Rep. Greg Vitali championed campaign finance reform five years ago, but so far all the state has done is duplicate his Web site for campaign expenses.State Rep. Greg Vitali, one of the leading legislators to call for reform, wrote those words more than five years ago.

He then embarrassed Pennsylvania legislative leaders by posting the first Web site to detail campaign contributions for statewide candidates.

Vitali took down his site last year after the state finally posted its own campaign finances and contributions Web sites. But nothing else has changed.

Pennsylvania still has no limits on what someone can contribute to a political campaign or how much can be spent.

Vitali, a Delaware County Democrat, repeatedly tried to get public financing for this year's gubernatorial campaign through a voluntary $5 checkoff on the state's Personal Income Tax form and a General Fund budget appropriation.

But his bill never made it out of committee and he has not reintroduced it so far during this two-year legislative session. Instead, Vitali has been focusing on lobbying reform, a call that House Speaker John Perzel resisted until after last year's legislative pay raise was repealed.

There are currently nearly 100 bills pending in the Legislature dealing with election law and campaigns. Yet, none of them calls for the type of sweeping reforms Vitali demanded half a decade ago.

Some would actually loosen the few restrictions politicians do face in Pennsylvania, including letting civil service workers take active parts in campaigns, and letting candidates file their required statements of financial interests after the last day for filing a petition.

Only one bill, S.B. 1094, calls for public financing. It's strictly an experiment focusing on Common Pleas Court and municipal judge races in Philadelphia.

The bill calls for the formation of a matching fund, fueled by a $10 checkoff on state income taxes and backed up by other state taxes, that "major political party" candidates for judge could qualify.

Only one out of nearly 100 bills pending before the Legislature calls for public financing for political campaigan, and that one is only an experiment in Philadelphia judge races.If a candidate opts in - it's not mandatory - the fund would match the candidate dollar-for-dollar up to $100,000 if they have raised at least $7,500 in the primary or $15,000 in the general election. No contribution could be more than $500, except for th candidate and his immediate family, who can contribute up to $10,000 each.

Those who accept public funding would be limited to spending $200,000 total. Anyone who violates those rules could be convicted of a misdemeanor and face up to five years in jail and a fine of $10,000 or three times the amount of money misused.

The bill, which was authored by state Senators Anthony Williams, Shirley Kitchen, Vince Fumo and Constance Williams, was referred to the Senate's state government committee on March 16.

New Jersey tried a similar experiment last year with candidates for its state Assembly in two of its 40 districts.

Ten Assembly candidates participated. They were eligible for up to $130,000 in state funds if they raised $20,000 from 1,500 small donations. But only two of them eventually qualified for the money, meaning the failure cost taxpayers $260,000.

A special commission formed to study the public campaign financing experiment released a final report Monday to the Legislature that recommended expanding the program from two to six districts during the 2007 legislative elections, requiring candidates to collect 800 donations of $10 to qualify, easing paperwork requirements and increasing what candidates could receive in the primary and general elections to $160,000.

Four former U.S. Senators, including Bill Bradley of New Jersey, called for similar public financing for Senatorial campaigns this week.

The only other state bill that calls for any reform is H.B. 2420. It would give First Class cities like Philadelphia the power "to regulate public and private campaign finance for the nomination and election of municipal officers."

The move is supported by Philadelphia's Committee of Seventy and the House Urban Affairs Committee held a hearing on the proposal April 20.

To prepare for such a change, city residents will vote on a referendum in Tuesday's primary on whether Philly should create its first independent ethics board.

Philadelphia's Committee of Seventy supports a change in state law that would let the city regulate campaign finances during its municipal elections. As part of that proposed change, Philly voters will be asked Tuesday to approve the city's first independent ethics board.If approved, the city would establish a five-member board empowered to investigate complaints, hold hearings, issue subpoenas and fines, and provide mandatory ethics training for all city employees. The panel would receive guaranteed funding and its members could not be removed without cause.


State Rep. Harold James thinks so. He's introduced a bill to make it mandatory for anyone seeking paid political office. To read more about it and other interesting election bills, click here.



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