Accurate records are vital

An effort in the Pennsylvania General Assembly to toughen the commonwealth’s lobbying law is constructed on what appears to be proper consideration and sound judgment.

The proposed legislation, House Bill 1175, passed the state House on a unanimous vote July 7, paving the way for the measure to move to the Senate.

The Senate should add its approval and forward the bill to Gov. Tom Wolf for his signature.

But as much as the legislation should be able to cut down on violations of lobbying guidelines, a related issue that has become public since the House’s action should raise the eyebrows of the commonwealth’s public and cause state residents to demand a look into what’s been alleged.

The allegation, made by the Pennsylvania Association of Government Relations, is that the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees all lobbyist registration, has trouble keeping its records straight.

In an article in the July 9 Mirror, Mark Richards, PAGR president, said, “A lot of time their records aren’t accurate. They will have someone registered as a lobbyist when they haven’t been one for years.”

According to Richards, his organization fears that lobbyists will be held accountable for errors made by the department in its records system.

It’s a legitimate concern that the Department of State should be made to answer.

If what Richards says is true, it is the department’s responsibility to fix what’s wrong, so it can assure the public — and lobbyists — that when it acts against a purported regulations violation, that action is based on accurate information, not on information no longer valid.

At the time of the July 9 article, Richards said PAGR did not have an official position on “1175,” explaining that his organization wants everyone to follow and respect lobbying disclosure regulations.

That said, the organization’s viewpoint regarding the Department of State’s record-keeping must be considered at least as important as what the bill intends to accomplish.

That’s because of the broader ramifications of sloppy record-keeping; the department oversees much more than lobbying-related issues.

It must be ascertained whether other department functions are being undermined by record-keeping that’s something less than what it should be.

Richards is right that lobbyists shouldn’t be victimized by inaccurate data and records. However, lobbyists have a responsibility to ensure that the department has up-to-date information.

The department doesn’t have the manpower to “investigate” whether information about lobbyists that it has on file is current.

State residents have no way of determining whether PAGR’s viewpoint on “State” record-keeping is accurate. However, they probably can agree on the fact that the provisions of House Bill 1175 that would beef up lobbyist reporting requirements and increase fines for noncompliance make sense in this age of extensive lobbying activities.

State Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, the House bill’s sponsor, was on target with his observation that “unlawful acts committed by lobbyists destroy trust, and those who are guilty should pay for their violation of the public trust.”

According to Wanda Murren, “State” press secretary, the department largely approves of the bill.

The department also should be open to a study of its record-keeping.