"What's black and white and read all over?"

Friday, May 12, 2006
Posted 10:49 PM by

What did $125 million in Pa. lobbying buy last year?

TODAY'S ISSUE: LOBBYING REFORM. Forget it! It doesn't exist. No one even knows the full scope of influence buying right now in Pennsylvania and there are no bills pending to limit it. However, a lobbyist disclosure bill for the state House and executive branch is being worked on in secret. But it reportedly matches the lax existing rules for the Senate.

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.

The number of registered lobbyists in Harrisburg outnumber lawmakers by more than three-to-one.No one really knows for sure how much lobbyists spend annually to wine, dine, entertain, fly, house or otherwise influence Pennsylvania's Legislature or which lawmakers have benefited the most.

The best guess for now is that 800 registered lobbyists spent nearly $125 million last year to sway the opinion of our 253 elected lawmakers as well as high-ranking officials in Gov. Ed Rendell's administration, according to statistics the lobbyists filed with the Secretary of the Senate.

And we only know that because since 2003, state Senate rules have required "lobbyists, at their discretion, to report all expenses - that is, money spent lobbying the Senate, House and executive branch - rather than breaking out Senate lobbying only."

There are currently no bills pending in either the House or the Senate to set limits on that lobbying.

Of the $125 million spent to lobby state leaders last year, only $3.4 million was reportedly spent directly on "gift(s), entertainment, meal(s), transporation or lodging."

No one really knows if that's true, though. The lobbyists are not required to report specifically what they bought or who they bought it for.

Elected and appointed officials are required by the state Ethics Law to detail such gifts in their annual statements of financial interests if more than $250 was spent.

However, the state Ethics Commission doesn't check those statements for completeness or accuracy, and only investigates after it receives a formal complaint.

Statements for most elected officials are available on the commission's Web site. But the statements of most appointed officials and executive branch employees stay within their department and must be requested in person.

The Senate's lobbyist disclosure rules may sound lax, but believe it or not, they are actually the toughest in Pennsylvania.

That's because the House of Representatives doesn't have any - making it the only state governing body in the nation not to have some form of lobbyist disclosure.

In March, Gov. Ed Rendell imposed looser rules than those of the Senate on executive branch lobbyists, saying he got tired of waiting for the House to pass a lobbyist disclosure law that covered both it and the executive branch.

"We've waited so long and nothing happened," Rendell said.

The House passed a lobbyist disclosure law for it and the executive branch in 1998. But it was struck down in 2002 by the state Supreme Court because it imposed rules on lawyers who work as lobbyists. Under the state Constitution, lawyers only answer to the Supreme Court.

Since then, Speaker of the House John Perzel has resisted repeated calls for a lobbying disclosure bill, including a petition signed by 46 state representatives just last week.

Pennsylvania Speaker of the House John Perzel, who accepted nearly $35,000 worth of gifts last year, keeps calling the bill his unnamed research staff are writing lobbyist reform. In reality, it's a weak disclosure bill that won't require lobbyists to detail how much they spent on individual lawmakers.Although one such bill (H.B. 700) does exist, Perzel is not a co-sponsor of it and said in February he would only bring a bill to the floor if he could write it in secret.

He's doing just that, or I should say his unnamed "research staff" are writing it for him. Meanwhile, Perzel has put together a panel of current and former state lawmakers, lawyers, judges and others to make sure the bill passes Constitutional muster before it's put to a vote.

Minutes from the panel's secret teleconferences say lobbyists will only have to disclose the total amount of money they spend and name their client. They won't have to say which bill they were lobbying for or against, or list who got what.

Yet, Perzel still touts his bill as lobbying "reform" on his Web site and and issued a press release today saying he hoped to have it on Rendell's desk by the end of June.

"My goal for this legislation is to have a law that will lead to more openness and transparency in our state government and to produce a product the people of Pennsylvania will be proud of," the press release quotes Perzel as saying.

His statement was released in time to respond to a vocal protest held by six public interest groups outside the Capitol on Friday.

Perzel's own statement of financial interest for last year says he accepted $34,316 in gifts, trips and cash from various sources. It does not specify the names of the lobbyists who gave it all to him, merely the original sources of the money.

Of the $125 million estimated cost of lobbying last year, nearly half - $58.3 million - was paid just by health care companies and construction/manufacturing interests.

Another $4.5 million was spent by gambling companies.

Although the state law legalizing slot machines prohibited direct contributions to political candidates by anyone interested in opening a slots parlor or providing the machines, it set no limits on lobbying.

Perhaps state Rep. Greg Vitali, who has long championed true lobbying reform, said it best in a Feb. 28 letter to the editor he sent to most newspapers in the state.

"The problem is that we don't know how much is being spent on which legislators by what lobbyists to advance what particular bills," Vitali, D-Delaware County, wrote. "If constituents were able to compare their own legislator's voting record to the gifts they received from lobbyists, it would curtail this type of improper influence peddling."

Gambling interests spent $4.5 million in 2005 to lobby Pennsylvania lawmakers - a full year after the slot machine law was passed and campaign contributions were outlawed.Vitali also noted, "A watered-down bill or another committee to study the issue is not enough. If the public does not get this legislation by May 16, they have an easy way to register their dissatisfaction with their legislator on that day - right after the curtain closes."



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