Budget season, campaign season collide in PA

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa — State Rep. Gerald Mullery expected a late night in the state Capitol on Tuesday, with the possibility lawmakers would consider more than 100 amendments to a pension overhaul plan.

Instead, Mullery and the rest of the state House clocked out at 5:12 p.m. — just in time for legislators to head downtown, where the House Democratic Campaign Committee was hosting a cocktail reception on the rooftop deck at Duane Morris Government Strategies.

June might be budget season in the capital, but it’s also campaign season.

BALANCING BUDGETS: Pennsylvania lawmakers will spend June shoring up finances, but that doesn’t always mean addressing the state budget.

Lawmakers are trying to figure out how to fill a deficit approaching $2 billion next year. At the same time, they’re spending the breakfast, lunch and evening hours shoring up their campaign accounts.

Some lawmakers will argue the point, but fundraisers “absolutely” affect the work hours of the General Assembly, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of good-government group Common Cause Pennsylvania.

“Quite often the chambers’ schedules are customized to accommodate the needs of political fundraisers rather than the business of the people,” Kauffman said.

State Rep. Tom Murt, R-Montgomery, believes time spent on political get-togethers could be better spent discussing legislation and finding common ground.

Murt has introduced legislation, House Bill 2071, that would prohibit legislators from fundraising on session days.

“Let’s be candid here: Don’t we always hear concerns frequently about there’s such a focus on fundraising and such a strong focus on politics and not enough on public service and legislative matters?” Murt said. “Well, this is another avenue toward that end.”

As of 2011, 29 states restricted campaign contributions during legislative sessions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Fifteen of those states banned any contributions, and 14 prohibited lobbyist contributions during sessions.

Murt said lawmakers usually try to finish by the dinner hour, but he acknowledged the political calendar can influence the legislative schedule. Even if the minority party has a fundraiser or political event planned for the evening, the majority party will try to accommodate it, Murt said.

At least six fundraisers were held in the Harrisburg area on session days this past week.

Aside from the rooftop party, Republicans could down a few pints of ale on Tuesday in support of state Senate candidate Patrick Stefano while Monday offered the Senate Republican Campaign Committee’s Summer Hoopla at Metro Bank Park.

The Senate recessed at 5:46 p.m. that day, leaving members with almost three hours to join the festivities.

About 15 fundraisers are scheduled in the capital area on session days next week, including a golf tournament held in honor of Republican members of the Legislature and state Sen. Mike Stack’s kickoff event as he campaigns to become lieutenant governor.

The fundraisers aim to bring in big money, too. The HDCC cocktail hour cost $500 to $5,000 to attend; the hoopla $400 to $1,000, depending upon sponsorship levels.

“June is the month when lawmakers go on a per diem splurge,” Eric Epstein, founder of Rock the Capital, said last month. “Most legislators start the day with a breakfast fundraiser, hunker down for a slush-fund lunch and then spend the rest of the day waiting for leadership to make sausage.”

Change won’t be easy. Even Murt acknowledges fellow lawmakers haven’t embraced his idea.

MURT: As part of another reform effort, state Rep. Tom Murt, R-Montgomery, wants to ban legislators from raising political money on session days.

State Sen. Richard Alloway, chairman of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, doesn’t think fundraisers slow down the Legislature, and banning the events on session days would only delay them a day, he said.

There are times when legislators have to forgo fundraisers to handle legislative business, too, Alloway said. He said lawmakers are “masters” of balancing schedules, even if that sometimes means mingling with donors during down times.

“Make no mistake about it, raising money is a pain in the behind. It absolutely is,” Alloway said. “It’s so time-consuming. It’s a lot of work. But it’s also part of the job because you need money to get your message out and market yourself and your ideas.”

Mullery, D-Luzerne, believes Murt’s bill would be difficult to police, especially as written.

The legislation would prohibit a public official or public employee of the legislative branch from accepting or soliciting “anything of monetary value, including a gift, loan or political contribution for a campaign for office in the legislative branch” on session days.

In some cases, a check for campaign donation could come in after a fundraiser, raising the possibility a lawmaker could unintentionally violate the prohibition, Mullery said. It would also mean a lawmaker couldn’t host a fundraiser in his or her district after a session, he said.

Besides, it shouldn’t matter as long as the General Assembly is adjourned for the day, Mullery said.

“If you’re having a fundraiser at 8 o’clock at night in Harrisburg, and we were recessed at 4 p.m., I don’t see anything wrong with that,” he said.

Kauffman of Common Cause believes the bill is headed in the “right direction,” and that some kinks could be worked out. The bill could be changed to say donations are effective the day a check is dated and that fundraisers in home districts are OK, he said.

Common Cause has supported similar proposals and even called for a bigger window in which to ban fundraising — within two weeks or 15 days of a session, for example. With fundraisers in Harrisburg more apt to draw lobbyists and special interests, that sort of legislation could help separate campaign donations from legislative actions, Kauffman said.

“In some ways these fundraisers are no more than legalized bribery,” Kauffman said. “The least we can do is create some distance between the act of the campaign contribution and the event.”

Staub can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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