EDITORIAL: We have lobbying problem in Pennsylvania, now we need to do something about it
The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have a problem.
Well, here in Pennsylvania, we've taken the first step. We know we have a problem.
Now we need to go about solving it.
The problem we must solve is our state’s ineffective, toothless lobbying laws.
Everyone pretty much agrees on that. In fact, on Wednesday, Oct. 30, the House Government Oversight Committee unanimously released its report on Pennsylvania’s Lobbying Disclosure Law.
You read that right. In this divisive political atmosphere, the committee unanimously released its report. That kind of governmental consensus is downright rare these days.
Seth Grove chairs the committee: It was the first report since the committee was formed earlier this year and State Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, was named its chairman.
Grove said the committee’s report showed that lobbying groups skew spending reports and that state oversight wasn’t effective at keeping tabs on noncompliance with state law.
"There's obviously a lot of under-the-radar (spending) that's not being publicly disclosed like the law has intended," Grove said. "I always say that if you're interested in who's spending the money, and who it is being spent on, we don't know either."
Quite frankly, that’s unacceptable.
Follow the money: It's absolutely essential that our legislators and the state’s residents know where the lobbying money is flowing from. Only then can we make reasonable judgments about what the lobbyists are trying to accomplish in Harrisburg.
Transparency is a must.
If we can’t follow the money, we can’t know the motivations involved.
When voters and legislators are left in the dark about motivations and money, corruption almost always is allowed to flourish.
Committee makes recommendations: The committee's report made several recommendations on how to solve the issue.
The report suggested that to combat inaccurate lobbying expenditure reports, lobbyists themselves should be required to report meals, gifts and other expenditures. Under state law, lobbying companies are in charge of filing disclosures.
This is vital, because lobbyists are only required to report the dollar amounts of expenditures more than $3,000. That gives the lobbyists the ability to divide larger expenditures among multiple lobbyists to portray smaller spending amounts.
The issues with auditing partially stem from the fact that the Department of State is only required by law to audit 3% of lobbying disclosures annually.
The committee suggested the department should take a risk-based approach to auditing that would focus on lobbyists with a poor track record. This would make better use of the department's limited resources, the report contended.
The committee also recommended that the practice of making most of these audit reports confidential should be ended. The state Ethics Commission is typically unable to enforce noncompliance without such reports.
Those all seem like common-sense measures.
The real issue, however, may be the limited resources that the report mentioned. If the Department of State isn’t adequately funded, the lobbyists will always remain a step ahead of the auditors in their efforts to hide the sources of their finances.
That’s just the nature of things.
Reasonable legislation needed: The next step in this process is crafting reasonable legislation that will close the loopholes and make the lobbyists more accountable to our legislators and the state’s voters.
"I'm certain somebody will pick this up," Grove said. "If nobody else is interested then I might."
Our politicians have admitted they have a problem. Now they need to do something about it.