Sunday, March 26, 2006

44: “Pennsylvania, the Land of Graft”

(Reposted from GettysBLOG)
Our good friend Tim Potts over at Democracy Rising has sent his latest news piece along, with a scorecard for the (non)performance of Governor Ed “Fast Eddie” Rendell on the issue of lobbyist control. As you will see, it is pretty damning. Apparently “Fast Eddie”, who was in one heck of a hurry to get the Gambling bill passed in mid-2004, but is in no particular hurry to get a lobbyist disclosure and control bill signed into law.

Here is the latest issue of Democracy Rising News:


In this issue:
· Citizens’ Constitutional Convention (C3) Update
· Rendell’s Lobbyist Control Order – Three Years for This?

C3 Update
Thanks to all of you who have sent us ideas for debate and decision at a Citizens’ Constitutional Convention in 2007. DR Fans from across Pennsylvania have submitted dozens of good ideas on subjects from the legislature to elections to local governments to the judicial branch. We are now researching facts about your issues, including how other states treat them. As we finish our research, we will begin posting detailed information on our web site for additional comment.

In the meantime, interest in a constitutional convention continues to run strong. Here’s a timely editorial from the March 22nd
Pocono Record:

Rendell’s Lobbyist Control Order – Three Years for This? Let’s set the stage:

August 2002 – After 16 months of consideration, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared Pennsylvania’s lobbyist disclosure act unconstitutional, making Pennsylvania the only state in the nation with no law to control lobbyists.

January 2003 -- Ed Rendell becomes governor.

January 2004 – Pennsylvania is still the only state in the nation with no law to control lobbyists.

January 2005 – Pennsylvania is still the only state in the nation with no law to control lobbyists.

January 2006 – Pennsylvania is still the only state in the nation with no law to control lobbyists.

March 2006 – Gov. Rendell issues an executive order to require some disclosure of lobbyist activities with respect to the executive branch of state government.

In other words, for more than three years Rendell had an open field. On any day he could have issued an executive order giving the executive branch of our state government the highest standards of public integrity in America. No lawmakers could block him. No courts could overrule him unless he violated a previous court decision.

Instead, last week Rendell gave Pennsylvania citizens a campaign brochure disguised as
Executive Order 1980-18 Revision No. 4.

The True Cost of Lobbying. How does it hurt citizens and taxpayers when lobbyists take public officials on golf outings, to gambling parlors, to conferences in exotic locations, to championship sporting events, or “just” to dinner?

The hours and days a public official spends in the company of a lobbyist are hours and days that no one else has such access, and there are still just 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week. So the current system rewards wealthy lobbyists by letting them buy a public official’s time – in private and off the record. Meanwhile others with equally valid perspectives but who can’t afford such largess find it hard to get a 15-minute meeting.

Monopolizing the time that taxpayers have already paid for is what makes gifts and entertainment for public officials so hostile to the thorough, informed, balanced and public debate of public issues.

Timing is everything. Rendell said that he issued the executive order because he didn't think the legislature was going to enact a new law. Yet the Senate has had a rule about lobbyists (weak and not very informative, but there nonetheless) for years while Rendell dawdled. Plus, there is now reason to believe the House will act, despite years of claiming that no law is necessary. Speaker John Perzel recently formed a commission to prepare at least part of a new proposal. Contrary to Rendell’s statement, the legislature is more likely to do something now than at any time since Rendell took office.

Making Sense. Rendell said it doesn't make sense to ban gifts from lobbyists to public officials. Yet several other states think it makes sense. Florida in December became the most recent state to ban gifts. Even the U.S. Congress, never a leader in matters of public integrity, is now considering its own ban in the wake of the Abramoff scandal.

What doesn't make sense is to allow private interests to influence public officials in ways that personally benefit the public official. What doesn't make sense is the assumption that private interests would spend millions of dollars a year and not believe they were getting anything in return. What doesn’t make sense is the idea that these personal gifts and perks have any public purpose at all.

Not Peanuts. So Rendell’s order allows $250 worth of gifts per year that lobbyists don’t have to report. It also allows $650 per year in “travel expenditure reimbursements" that lobbyists don’t have to report. That’s $900 a year, per lobbyist, per public official.

Imagine an issue that has a few key decision-makers but several groups that would be affected. If just 20 well-heeled lobbyists provided the maximum unreported gifts and entertainment to a state official, it could equal $18,000 worth of influence spending that personally benefit the state official and that lobbyists never have to report. There are estimated to be 800-900 lobbyists in Harrisburg.

EXCEPT, the Governor’s Office points out, that executive branch employees are required to report gifts of $100 or more and “any payments for services, including any travel reimbursements.”
Q&A on Lobbying.)

In other words, lobbyists don’t have to report a lot of things that employees have to report. Skeptics can just hear a lobbyist saying to a public official, “I don’t have to report this $900. Why should you?” At the very least, having two different reporting requirements makes it harder to reconcile reports and arrive at a clear picture of the influence of lobbyists.

Bureaucracy. Here’s another reason to ban gifts that makes sense: A ban would eliminate the bureaucracy needed to track all that self-reported gift-giving and to make sure that reports are timely filed, placed on the Internet, etc. Ban gifts, and all of that bureaucracy disappears.

Enforcement. A ban also would allow more resources to go toward enforcement, which the governor admits is beyond the power of an executive order.

So Rendell’s order says, in effect, "We'll put some information out there and it's up to the citizens to catch us breaking the rules, although there are no real penalties for lobbyists who break the rules anyway."

Any time government pushes enforcement of the laws and rules onto the citizens, government will not take the laws and rules seriously. It knows that citizens have other things to do – and that citizens believe they’re already paying for enforcement.

Transparency? While the governor’s order requires some information to be put on the Internet, even that doesn’t go far enough. Reports will be searchable by lobbyist and by whoever hired the lobbyist, but not by public official.

Citizen-enforcers need to see the information by public official – the public decision maker that lobbyists attempt to influence. It will be exceedingly valuable to see how often and by whom any individual public official deals with lobbyists on the whole array of public policy decisions. Rendell’s executive order makes that crucial information next to impossible to find.

It also would be helpful if reports could be filed daily and placed online immediately. Waiting months for these reports could make the difference between citizens having the chance to participate in their government or being shut out once again.

Questions for Rendell
What took you so long? Did it have anything to do with slots?

Why doesn’t it make sense to ban gifts and entertainment to public officials? Which public officials deserve to receive gifts and entertainment from lobbyists who can afford to provide them? How does such preferential treatment help public officials to make decisions that benefit ordinary citizens?

Are you concerned about the appearance of impropriety?

Why doesn’t your order require lobbyists to use the same reporting rules -- $100 for gifts and “any travel reimbursements” – that employees must follow? Would the number of gifts between $100 and $250 and a full accounting of entertainment expenditures be too much of a burden for lobbyists to report? Is the purpose to inform the public or to make reporting convenient for lobbyists?

Why isn’t the database of lobbying activities under the executive order searchable by public official? Why isn’t information made available to citizens in as close to real time as technology allows?

Why aren’t you leading the effort to give Pennsylvania the highest standards of public integrity in America when it comes to controlling the activities of lobbyists, among many other things?


Thanks, Tim. I suspect that the answer to that last question is because so many people would lose their jobs, and perhaps go to jail if a lobbyist disclosure law were enacted. Now that our great governor has brought us legalized gambling it is safe to say that not only is Pennsylvania government the laughingstock of the nation, it is also the most corrupt. All the more reason for outfits such as Democracy Rising and Operation Clean Sweep, and Common Cause of Pennsylvania to exist. Bless you all, friends, for the great work you do on the front lines of Democracy in Pennsylvania. What a pity that in the state where our nation was formed on the principles of Democracy, Liberty, and Justice, we now have little of any of those qualities to our life.


“Kick the hubris out of Harrisburg!” -- THE CENTRIST

"It is the duty of every citizen according to his best capacities to give validity to his convictions in political affairs." -- Albert Einstein

Copyright © 2006: “THE CENTRIST”. All Rights Reserved.

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