Top. Pa. Senate Democrat introduces campaign finance reform bill

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    In the wake of published reports revealing that state lawmakers obscured millions of dollars in campaign spending, a senior state lawmaker says he wants to change that.

    On Friday, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, floated a bill that he says would impose spending limits and require greater transparency in the way that money is spent. Right now, Pennsylvania does not impose limits on spending and it’s often difficult to tell how campaigns are spending their money.

    The bill comes in response to a year-long investigation by two Harrisburg-based investigative journalism organizations, The Caucus and Spotlight PA. Costa was among the lawmakers highlighted in the story.

    In a statement issued by his office on Friday, Costa said his bill would be similar to one he’s introduced in every legislative session since 2010, but with some additions.

    In its old form, the bill:

    • “[Limited] the expenditures of a candidate, political committee, political action committee, political party committee or other person, for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election.
    • “[Required] disclosure of the now-unlimited campaign contributions. While corporate political contributions to candidates remain illegal, these expenditures can now be made to influence the outcome of election, per Citizen’s United. The legislation will require that these expenditures be disclosed and made public to educate the public on the financial backers of candidates.
    • “[Prohibited spending] campaign funds for personal use.
    • “[Banned] campaign funds to be used in the purchase of gift cards.”

    Costa said the new additions to his bill include:

    • “A requirement for full disclosure of itemized credit card expenses.
    • “Mandating that campaign committees provide access to expense receipts with an appeal available to the Department of State for assistance in determining whether the record should be accessible.”

    In a post to Twitter, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, who was the main target of the news organizations’ investigation, said that he “[stands] with [Costa’s goal] of strengthening the current law to improve transparency for campaign disclosure in [Pennsylvania.].”

    A statement his office issued late Friday afternoon, Scarnati said he  “welcome[s] the discussion to make campaign expenditures more transparent to the public.”

    He noted that the Senate earlier this year unanimously approved a bill from Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, requiring candidates and political action committees to file all their campaign finance reports online.

    The bill, which Browne said would “improve government transparency and accountability,” currently awaits a vote in a House committee.

    But Scarnati warned that compromise can be difficult on matters related to campaign and election reform. Any debate about campaign finance reform in Pennsylvania “should also include the issue of public sector unions’ contributions and their influence in the electoral process,” he said.

    “If the Governor, as well as members from both parties and chambers of the legislature collectively work together to strengthen transparency regarding campaign finance, I am willing once again to actively engage in these conversations and to advance such product,” he wrote.

    An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.
    Elizabeth Hardison covers the state Senate, as well as education and criminal justice issues, for the Capital-Star. You can reach her at [email protected], on Twitter @ElizHardison, or by phone at 607-437-3548.