May 1 2006

Most citizens of Pennsylvania believe the business of government, including state government, should be conducted openly and without undue influence. Those same citizens often question whether that’s actually taking place. IssuesPA investigated.

(May 2006) Money and the legislative process – perfect together? A bit too close for comfort? Best left alone? In need of a makeover? What about the role of lobbyists?

Proposals to reform the role of money and the legislative process have been advanced consistently over the years. Only recently are some of them gaining traction, due in part to the uproar over the since-repealed 2005 pay raise for legislators.

What’s the impact of money on the campaign process?

In these early years of the 21st century, money plays an increasingly important role in campaigns and elections. Communicating with the electorate during campaigns seems to require larger and larger amounts of money. No longer is a whistle-stop tour or door-to-door campaign a match for a coordinated television blitz except – perhaps – at the most local level.

Suspicions of buying influence and “pay-to-play” in government spending decisions and policymaking increases in direct proportion to the amount of money contributed to campaigns by outside sources. To combat the potential for undue influence, many states have legislated limits on the amount of money candidates can receive from donors. These limits apply to contributions from individuals, political action committees, corporations and unions, and political parties. But Pennsylvania isn’t one of those states that sets limits. To learn more on how PA compares, see the IssuesPA Scorecard.

What about lobbying?

After a successful campaign, public officials receive the attentions of lobbyists, those who try to influence legislators or other public officials for or against a specific cause – their cause. Many states have laws that require tracking and reporting the amount of money spent on lobbying, registering those who lobby, and limiting or prohibiting some lobbying activities. The purpose of these laws? Make public how much is spent, identify those seeking influence, and prohibit those activities that could unfairly influence or compromise public policy -- ultimately hold public officials more accountable for their actions and decisions by revealing lobbyist activity.

But Pennsylvania doesn’t have laws regulating lobbying. The State Senate has internal policies for its own members, but they’re not legislated, and they don’t apply to the House of Representatives or any executive branch official or agency.

All other states have at least some legislation in place to regulate lobbying: Forty-nine states have laws that apply to lobbying the legislature, 34 states regulate lobbying the Governor, and 34 apply those laws to other executive branch agencies. For more on how PA compares, see the IssuesPA Scorecard.

How about the legislative process?

Pennsylvania’s Constitution contains a separate Article devoted to legislation. According to the first 13 sections, addressing various aspects of the legislative process, the framers envisioned a deliberate and open legislative process. Many critics believe current practices in 2006 fall far short of the intent, if not the letter, of the law.

Issues cited include: 

  • Excessive control of processes and procedures by leadership of both the majority and minority parties. These controls extend from deciding what legislation will be considered – and when – to fiscal and staffing levels available to members; 
  • Circumvention of constitutionally-mandated procedures that deny members and the public full and open debate on legislation before final passage; 
  • Self-determination of legislators’ compensation levels and benefits in the absence of public scrutiny; 
  • Rising costs of the legislature due to its size and expanding support functions; 
  • “Legislative Initiative Grants” in the state budget outside the context of specific state programs. The ability to make such grants is given to members of the legislature by Senate and House leadership.

Initiative and referendum is another process advocated by government reform advocates. Initiatives permit citizens, through a petition process, to place questions on the ballot for the purpose of advising public officials, changing statutes, or amending the Constitution. The Initiative and Referendum Institute reports 24 states have an initiative process for Constitutional amendments and/or statutes. Pennsylvania isn’t one of them.

In many states, voters have the ability to reject laws or amendments to the Constitution proposed by their legislature. Voters in every state except Delaware can accept or reject proposed constitutional amendments.

In 23 states, citizens can place statutes on the ballot for approval through a petition process. Pennsylvania doesn’t allow referenda on statutes. However, the legislature has taken advantage of the referendum process by requiring referenda at the local level to implement state statutes. For example, present law allows citizens to vote to raise their school earned income tax to offset the elimination of so-called “nuisance” taxes. Referenda also are required to implement new local taxing schemes as a pre-requisite for receiving money from the 2005 slot machine gambling law.

Bottom line? An election year always is a good time to explore makeovers. Can voters help build a consensus on what’s best for Pennsylvania? Will candidates listen?