Address campaign finances
Late last month, Gov. Tom Wolf, joined by his Democratic allies in the state House and Senate, rolled out a comprehensive suite of reforms aimed at restoring public trust in the electoral process and limiting the influence of special interests in state politics.
Included among them was a proposal to fix Pennsylvania’s broken campaign finance system.
“To rebuild trust in Harrisburg, we must have fair and accessible elections for all citizens from our rural communities to our big cities,” Wolf said in a statement. “These reforms have been championed by House and Senate Democrats to modernize our voting laws and put the people of Pennsylvania back in control of our elections. It’s time to remove barriers to voting, end gerrymandering, and curb special interests.”
Plans would permit election-day registration, redistricting reforms, and campaign finance reforms. Legislative action is needed.
If you’re having trouble remembering that announcement, take heart, you’re not the only one. After receiving a bit of attention at the time, the reforms Wolf floated were promptly swallowed by the legislative machine.
With Pennsylvania’s primary elections now little more than three weeks away, these proposals are worth revisiting.
These campaign finance reform bills sponsored by the Democratic floor leaders in the state House and Senate, would finally inject some sanity into Pennsylvania’s laughably porous existing laws.
Right now, it’s open season in Pennsylvania for deep-pocketed donors and special interests. There are no contribution limits. And only direct corporate contributions are banned – though there are plenty of ways for corporate America to work their way around that.
The House bill, sponsored by Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, would, among other things, impose hard caps on contributions.
n $1,500 per election to House and Senate candidates
n $5,000 per election to statewide candidates
n $10,000 per election to House and Senate candidates from PACs
n $10,000 per election to PACs from political parties
n $250,000 aggregate limit per election for House and Senate candidates
n $1,000,000 aggregate limit per election for statewide candidates
n $5,000,000 aggregate limit per election for governor
The bill would also require so-called groups that make uncoordinated expenditures on behalf of candidates and campaigns to disclose those contributions.
Similar requirements are now in place in Connecticut and Maryland, Dermody wrote in a “Dear Colleague” memo seeking support for his proposal.
Separate legislation, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, would limit election expenditures to “the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election, to expenses directly and exclusively incurred for the campaign in which the candidate is running in the contemporaneous election cycle and not for any personal purpose. The legislation also addresses acceptance of campaign contributions from out-of-state committees.”
Costa’s bill would similarly crack down on independent expenditure groups, and would, like Dermody’s proposal, require corporations to notify shareholders when political expenditures (through political action committees) are made on their behalf. The bills also would require companies to seek shareholder permission for contributions of $10,000 or more.
The proposals by the two Democrats hardly reinvent the wheel. Campaign finance reform proposals have been making the rounds under the Capitol dome for decades.
And that’s one of the reasons why it’s so easy to stand up and call for reform. Knowing full well they’ll go nowhere, there’s zero political risk, but everything to gain.
It’s also one of the reasons why Pennsylvania scored an “F” for campaign finance, finishing 43rd in the nation, on a 2015 report card put together by the watchdog Center for Public Integrity.
Meanwhile, until or unless something changes, politics in Pennsylvania is increasingly becoming a rich man’s (or woman’s) game.
Two of the three Republican candidates for governor, both independently wealthy, have dug deep into their own pockets to fund their campaigns. Wolf, similarly, is sitting on a $14.7 million war chest as he revs up his re-election machinery.
Given Pennsylvania’s historic allergy to political reform, the Keystone State is unlikely to embrace the public financing options that are in place in more than two dozen states, counties and municipalities across the country.
But lawmakers can at least begin the conversation by bringing Costa’s and Dermody’s bills to the floor of their respective chambers to a vote.