It's an election year, which puts in the spotlight once again on PA's awful campaign finance laws. According to the national State Integrity Investigation (SII) project, PA ranks 47th among the 50 states, ("Big money fuels state politics, often without transparency or oversight." See the SII report at www.stateintegrity.org).
Pennsylvania scored just 46 out of a possible 100. Only Alabama, Utah, and Wyoming scored lower.
We suffer from several problems, all of which the legislature can fix any time it wants. Most serious are the complete lack of limits on campaign contributions and ineffective enforcement of campaign finance laws. This allows money ostensibly raised "for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election," quoting the law, to be used for just about any purpose under the sun. For example, ex-lawmakers have financed their criminal defense with money raised for the purpose of election campaigns.
Here's a recent example: Mellow's campaign spent lots on lawyers last year, according to the Feb. 11 Scranton Times-Tribune ($740,000!)
There's good news, though.
First, Pennsylvania voters understand the problem and want improvements. DR's Public Integrity Poll found that 88 percent of PA voters want to reform campaign finance laws while just 7 percent don't. Also, 74 percent of voters want to limit the amount of money that individuals and organizations can donate to campaigns, and 65 percent even favor some limited form of public financing for elections.
Second, there is an example of a state that does it right.
To remedy our problems, lawmakers can look to Connecticut, the only state to earn an A for its campaign finance laws and enforcement.
Will your legislators do something to improve our ranking, or will your legislators continue to be pro-choice on this form of corruption?
Pay and pay and pay.
Until Allegheny County's District Attorney decided to seek repayment of the taxpayer costs of defending ex-Sen. Jane Orie, Allegheny, we had thought that was standard operating procedure. We were wrong. It's up to the prosecutor to go after those costs, and so far only the Allegheny DA has done it.
So for the past six years, taxpayers have paid once for the original crime, a second time for the prosecution, and a third time for the defense.
It's one thing for taxpayers to defend a public official when there is a question about the conduct of official duties. In such cases, it would be impossible to make the public official pay the costs of the lawsuit; no one would ever serve in public office under those conditions.
But no one argues that breaking the law is part of anyone's official duties. If public officials accused of crimes knew that upon conviction they would have to repay taxpayers for their defense, a few things are likely to occur: the accused would be more concerned about the cost of their defense, and those against whom a case is particularly strong would be more likely to enter a plea.
Why didn't Gov. Tom Corbett, when he was attorney general, seek restitution to taxpayers for the cost of defending public officials who were found guilty?
Will Pennsylvania Acting Attorney General Linda Kelly seek to make taxpayers whole for the prosecutions under her watch?
These are tough days for integrity advocates. Even the depths of the recession were better days for raising money to continue this work. So we're trying to figure out what's wrong and how to proceed.
Have citizens gotten tired of the fight and want to move on? Have citizens given up? Are we suffering scandal fatigue? Something else?
Let us know what you think.
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Tim Potts is director of www.DemocracyRisingPa.com.