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

Thursday, June 22, 2006
Posted 10:43 PM by

Pa. house passes watered down lobbyist disclosure bill

Some lawmakers may have been hoodwinked into approving House Speaker John Perzel's bill by mistake, after the bulk of its wording replaced that of a stronger competing bill the House approved once last year.

Pennsylvania House Speaker John Perzel feigned ignorance of the fact that a lobbyist disclosure bill railroaded through the House Tuesday mirrors the competing one he introduced a week ago, even though its original version had much stronger requirements.Pennsylvania's House of Representatives rammed through a lobbyist disclosure bill, 190-1, Thursday that was almost word-for-word the same one Speaker John Perzel proposed two weeks ago - but even more watered down.

To make matters worse, the measure was passed using the same controversial - some say unconstitutional - method House leaders used to pass the law legalizing slot machines in 2004 and to give lawmakers a now-repealed pay raise last year.

An existing bill was gutted after it had already been approved once and put into committee, then brought back to the floor and passed a second time with its wording substantially changed.

But unlike the slots law and the pay raises, which used unrelated bills as their guise, Perzel's lobbyist "reform" bill, H.B. 2753, actually used a competing plan's House number, H.B. 700, as its own. And the Republican legislator who wrote the old version acted as if it was still his bill.

Rep. John Maher, H.B. 700's prime sponsor, called it "the toughest, the most far-reaching lobbying proposal that has ever been considered by this Legislature," the Associated Press reported.

Maher would have been correct if his quote had come before June 13, the day Perzel's bill was introduced in the House and the same day H.B. 700 was reported out of the House Appropriations Committee with its wording changed.

The centerpiece of his bill, Maher said, are the requirements for registration and expense reporting by "principals," the companies and other interests that hire or employ lobbyists.

Maher's original version of the bill - printer's No. 917 - which was first approved March 14, 2005, would have required principals to file an expense report when their "aggregate expenses for lobbying or gifts exceed $500 in a reporting period."

The new version - the one representatives approved twice today, printers No. 4350, sets that threshold five times higher - at $2,500 - the same minimum Perzel wanted in H.B. 2753.

That's not the only similarity.

Wording between the latest version of 700 and 2753 is virtually identical, a comparison of the two bills finds. There are two major differences, though.

A controversial proposal that would have made violations of Perzel's bill possibly subject to racketeering charges was dropped from H.B. 700. Also stripped was a clause that Perzel wanted to bar each lobbyist from representing different principals if their interests conflict.

Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation without a lobbyist disclosure law. A previous law passed in 1998 was overturned by the state Supreme Court in 2002 because it regulated lawyers who also work as lobbyists, when attorneys can only face discipline from the high court's disciplinary board.

A senate rule has been in place since 2003, which requires lobbyists to voluntary report their total expenses and who they're lobbying for. Their reports showed that 800 registered lobbyists spent nearly $125 million last year to sway the opinion of the state's 253 elected lawmakers as well as high-ranking officials in Gov. Ed Rendell's administration.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of Pennsylvania, isn't exactly thrilled with today's bill. He told the AP the House rushed it through too quickly to give him and the general public time to analyze its provisions.

"Here's a bill to protect public integrity, and the actual language they voted on popped up two hours before the vote," Kauffman said.

"It's a replay of how we dealt with the pay raise, the gaming legislation and other controversial legislation," state Rep. Greg Vitali, the bill's lone dissenter, said in a press release. "The language in the final version of this bill was negotiated by a handful of people and sprung on everyone at the last minute. As of this morning, most legislators still did not have a copy of it. The public has not seen the language, it did not go through committee, it has not been considered on three separate days - it's the same old process."

But the bait-and-switch of the wording and bill number wasn't why Vitali, long a proponent of lobbyist reform, stood alone in voting against it.

"It does not provide enough disclosure to allow constituents to gauge how much their legislators and the issues they decide are being influenced by special interest lobbyists," said Vitali, D-Delaware County. "It does not require lobbyists to list the specific subject matter or legislation they are attempting to influence, or the names of the legislators they are trying to influence."

As I first reported exclusively in April, both were points Perzel and his unnamed "research staff" insisted upon while drafting his bill behind closed doors.

Perzel's bill wasn't given a House number and posted online for the public to read until last Wednesday, a full week after he held a press conference to announce its introduction.

For his part, Perzel feigned ignorance about the change in H.B. 700's wording today.

"Earlier this month, when I introduced the Lobbying Accountability Act (H.B. 2753), I said that even if my specific proposal was not the final document in which lobbying reform was enacted, I was okay with that," Perzel said in a press release.

State Rep. Greg Vitali, the lobbyist disclosure bill's lone dissenter, said it does not disclose which lawmakers received items from lobbyists and why. He also decried the method by which it was passed, which was identical to last year's pay raise law."My ultimate goal was to have a law that would lead to more openness and transparency in state government and a law that would addresses the issue of lawyers who take part in the lobbying process, an issue that negated the state's previous Lobbying Disclosure Law.

"I am confident that House Bill 700 does just that, and for the first time, the people of Pennsylvania will know who hires lobbyists, how much they spend, and who and what they are trying to influence."
 |  2 comments  |  |  RSS Feed | Add to Technorati Favorites

This Week's Rants | The Daily Rant Archives

Creative Commons License
The Daily Rant by Dave Ralis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.