Pa. Republicans unveil lobbying reform package to address ‘most pressing loopholes’ in law

The proposed legislation does not include the gift ban, which would prohibit lawmakers from accepting gifts from lobbyists.

By: - October 13, 2021 2:19 pm

GOP Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, reacts to Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).

Nine months after the top Republican in the Pennsylvania state Senate vowed to make transparency a major priority in the Legislature, lawmakers are inching toward some lobbying reform.

Four Republicans in the upper chamber introduced a package of bills on Wednesday that would impose new requirements for lobbyists and political consultants to avoid conflicts of interest and define the relationship between lawmakers and those who try to influence them.

“Lobbyists can be a very important part of what we do here to represent millions of Pennsylvanians as they represent millions of Pennsylvanians and bring expertise to issues that legislators often lack,” Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said in his first speech as Senate leader in January. “However, it is important that our interactions with them meet the standard that the public is comfortable with.”

Corman and House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, announced plans for the legislation in May, calling it a step toward rebuilding trust in democracy. 

Critics, however, called it a baby step. Michael Pollack, executive director of the March on Harrisburg, a grassroots reform organization, told the Capital-Star that the proposal was “a snowball” that doesn’t even begin to address the “avalanche” of issues in politics.

Corman, who hired a lobbyist to serve as his chief of staff last year, has faced scrutiny for his relationship with lobbyists and political consultants. In the past few months, the top Senate Republican has supported some initiatives to increase transparency, including making all Senate office expenses available online and the now-law that requires lobbyists to disclose any equity they hold in an entity for which they’re lobbying.

On Wednesday, he signed on as a co-sponsor to four bills introduced by GOP Sens. Bob Mensch, of Montgomery County, Kristin Phillips-Hill, of York County, Lisa Baker, of Luzerne County, and Robert M. “Tommy” Tomlinson, of Bucks County, which target lobbyists, and consultants with added disclosures and mandatory training requirements.

Mensch’s bill would require lobbyists to register clients seeking state funding and prohibit kickbacks for referrals or bonuses for a successful application for taxpayer-funded grants. 

Phillips-Hill’s proposal would bar state agencies from hiring an outside firm or lobbyist to lobby any branch of government and prohibit former lobbyists who become General Assembly employees from being lobbied by their former colleagues for one year.

Baker’s legislation would prevent lobbyists from being registered political consultants and prohibit political consultants from lobbying a state official for the remainder of their term they provided service for, and Tomlinson’s bill would require all registered lobbyists to complete ethics training each year. The Department of State would develop the mandatory training program.

“Adding the necessary layers of transparency and separation between all of these entities will help prevent conflicts of interest and ensure lobbyists and political consultants cannot play an inappropriate role in the legislative process,” Corman said.

However, the bill package doesn’t address every issue raised by citizens concerned with lobbyists’ influence over politics, specifically the proposed gift ban — which would prohibit lawmakers from accepting gifts.

Under current law, it is legal for lobbyists to buy lawmakers dinner, give them tickets to events and offer any other gift while discussing policy and legislation. And unless the cost is more than $250, the items do not have to be reported.

March on Harrisburg, a grassroots organization, hosts a rally on the Capitol steps to urge the Pennsylvania Legislature to pass the gift ban. (Capital-Star photo by Marley Parish)

March on Harrisburg is one of the most vocal groups advocating for the gift ban. Members have disrupted Senate sessions with protests in the gallery and led out of lawmakers’ offices in handcuffs. Recently, they protested at a fundraiser for Corman in Centre County.

“Fundraisers are exclusive spaces where legislators like Corman and the wealthy think they can escape the demands of the working class,” Pollack said earlier this month. “A round of golf at this fundraiser today is $500. Sponsorships cost up to $10,000. That’s the price for a time with Sen. Corman — a price most Pennsylvanians can’t pay and shouldn’t have to pay.”

Randall Hayes, who leads the group’s Harrisburg chapter, said fundraiser attendees told him they were “just playing golf” and advised him to call Corman’s office.

“Events like [last month’s] fundraiser are exactly what is wrong with our system: The wealthy few who can afford to play get heard,”  Hayes said. “And the 4.3 million poor and low-income Pennsylvanians are left in the cold.”

Earlier this year, the investigative news website Spotlight PA reported that Corman traveled to Arizona for an event organized by the Mavericks, a Harrisburg-based firm that helps fundraise for elected officials, runs political campaigns, and lobbies officials once they are in office. The same group also handles Corman’s campaigns. He also accepted a trip to the Bahamas from the Pennsylvania Bar Association for its mid-year meeting.

Jason Thompson, a spokesperson for Corman, declined to comment on whether the senator supports the gift ban. The reform package addresses “the most pressing loopholes in the law that Sen. Corman believes should be fixed immediately,” he said.

Thompson added: “With that said, we are certainly open to considering other potential reforms that promote greater transparency in government.”

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