HARRISBURG - Scandals erupt so often in Harrisburg that sometimes it's hard to keep up with them all.
"We get a new scandal every 60 days it seems," said Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair.
The latest corruption charges - involving the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission - have much to do with pay to play, the backscratching that can go on between business people who want lucrative government contracts and elected officials who are in a position to steer lucrative contracts to them.
But despite the arrests of one former state senator and three former turnpike commission officials, there's hardly a clamor in the Legislature to ban or limit campaign contributions from business people seeking state contracts.
An explicit this-for-that exchange is already illegal. But in Pennsylvania, people at engineering firms, law firms and many other businesses that win state contracts still give freely to the politicians who might be able to exert influence on the deals.
Craig Holman, who has helped several other states write pay-to-play laws and lobbies for the citizen advocacy group Public Citizen in Washington, D.C., said he finds that it is often business as usual for prominent campaign contributors to get government contracts in states without such restrictions.
Government contracts are a leading source of corruption in state and local governments, and Pennsylvania would benefit from a strong pay-to-play law, Holman said.
"A good pay-to-play law not only protects taxpayers, but it tells these office holders that there is bright line that you cannot cross," Holman said. "You want to award contracts based on merits and not on campaign contributions."
Fifteen states have pay-to-play laws on the books. Scandals can motivate the passage of such restrictions, as has happened in the three states with the strongest laws - New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois, Holman said.
Pay-to-play laws can impose criminal or civil penalties, such as barring the offender and his or her business from getting any state contracts for a certain period of time.
Some limit the dollar amount of contributions allowable, while others apply only to contracts of at least a certain value. An effective law also requires business people or firms to disclose campaign contributions when they begin seeking a contract, Holman said.
Pennsylvania has already enacted campaign contribution restrictions on the people who own and run casinos and the advisers, administrators and investments managers who seek work with municipal pension systems. Federal rules limit campaign contributions by investment managers of public money and brokers and dealers of municipal securities, while Philadelphia, the state's most populous city, has a strong pay-to-play rule, Holman said.
Each governor's administration hires a vast number of businesses to do everything from providing toilet paper to legal advice on billion-dollar bond issues. In addition, the governor and top lawmakers have central roles in appointing people to lead agencies that award hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts, loans or grants.
Those appointees can be politically active.
Just six days before state officials filed charges in the turnpike case, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, headlined a Pittsburgh fundraiser whose guests were invited by Bill Lieberman, the turnpike commission chairman, and John Verbanac, a board member of the Commonwealth Financing Authority.
Pileggi said he does not see why business people would see a connection between their attendance at the fundraiser - the invitation suggested a $1,000 per person contribution - and their ability to secure grants, loans or contracts from the two agencies. Lieberman and Verbanac were politically active and supporters of his even before they were appointed, Pileggi said.
When it comes to pay-to-play restrictions, Pileggi said, it is easier to approach it in segments. In recent weeks, he has discussed the possibility of writing campaign contribution restrictions into forthcoming transportation funding legislation that would target people in that industry, Pileggi said.
Eichelberger said he has approached several fellow senators about exploring broader pay-to-play legislation. He is also writing legislation that would require greater disclosure of the campaign contributions made by contractors, and that may be the approach lawmakers prefer.
House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, said he worried about the unintended consequences of a pay-to-play law and would rather start with disclosure. For instance, it might not be right to ban campaign contributions by a small-business owner who has a paper-supply contract, he said.
"How you go about it to put some controls on it and define it is easier said than done," Smith said.
On Monday, the Republican-controlled House voted down two pay-to-play proposals offered by Democrats as floor amendments to a separate bill.
Former GOP Rep. Steve Nickol, who as chairman of the House Finance Committee in 2008 unsuccessfully sought to bar the state Treasury Department from hiring investment managers who had contributed to the treasurer's campaign, said he worries about campaign contributions finding other avenues.
For instance, many people in the Capitol have long assumed that lobbying or law firms gave campaign contributions on behalf of business clients that would not want to be seen giving such money, Nickol said.
"Money tends to find its way around such barriers," he said.
In any case, Nickol's legislation went nowhere. In 2010, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission effectively banned such campaign contributions.