Pa.s’ top two Republicans announce plans for lobbying reform, but is it enough?

By: - May 17, 2021 5:22 pm

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

A new package of bills could tighten the guidelines for Pennsylvania lobbyists. Though it’s a step toward reform, advocates say they need more details.

In a statement released Monday, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, and House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, unveiled plans to draft legislation and build on the state’s existing Lobbyist Disclosure Act by regulating lobbyists’ influence and establishing a code of conduct for lobbyists.

“There is a tangled web of money and influence between the people who lobby the General Assembly and the people who run the political campaigns,” Corman said in a statement. “This package of bills would help untangle the web and sever the ties between those two entities while ensuring the public has more access to information about the individuals and organizations who are seeking to influence public policy.”

Though Corman and Cutler say this initiative is a step toward rebuilding citizens’ trust in democracy, critics of the legislation called it a baby step — “a snowball” that doesn’t even begin to address an “avalanche” of financial issues, Michael Pollack, executive director of March on Harrisburg, told the Capital-Star.

Under the proposal, lobbyists would be required to disclose and register any client conflicts and potential assets with the Department of State and complete a mandatory annual ethics training. 

Campaign consultants, who also would be required to register with the state, would be prevented from registering as lobbyists and lobbying elected officials for two years.

The package also prohibits lobbyists from receiving or paying referral payments to another individual, firm or campaign consultant. In a statement, the Republican lawmakers said this would prevent “kick-backs” from one firm or individual to another.

“Every Pennsylvanian, whether they realize it or not, has a lobbyist working for them inside the Capitol,” Cutler said. “The voters elected us to carry their voices and their interest; we are their lobbyists. The voices of the people we represent cannot be shouted down by those with power and influence, and these reforms will help ensure all voices are on an equal playing field in Harrisburg.”

Corman promoted the proposal in a tweet, saying that reforming state lobbying and campaign laws was a promise he and Cutler made after being elected to their leadership posts in January.

“Today, we took an important step toward that goal,” he wrote.

Khalif Ali, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania — which advocates for government transparency and accountability — agreed that Pennsylvania needs lobbying reform. He said that any opportunity for Pennsylvanians to have more influence over policy would be a positive step.

But governing doesn’t happen on social media, he added. 

“I like what I’ve read in the memo,” Ali said. “But again, I absolutely need a bill. I need something that we can offer some feedback and some critical analysis on. It just can’t be tweets or press releases. I can’t put my faith in those documents to know that this is something that’s serious.”

Ali hopes lawmakers will also examine the proposed gift ban, which would prohibit lawmakers from accepting gifts from lobbyists. 

“Cash in politics is just a critical part and should be integrated into any topic related to lobbying,” he said.

Under current law, it is legal for lobbyists to buy lawmakers dinners, 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.

Hoping to restore faith in government with the proposal, Corman and Cutler — who have faced questions about their credibility on lobbying reform — said they plan to formally introduce the legislation “in the near future.”

Earlier this month, 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.

While there, he helped raise funds for the Build PA PAC, which brings in millions for GOP campaigns each year. Another fundraiser for the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee — a firm that helps elect Republicans nationwide — followed. Corman reportedly attended; the RLCC appointed both lawmakers to leadership positions earlier this year.

Neither lawmaker has said they will stop working with these groups.

Though the co-sponsorship memo proposes what would be an “improvement to the status quo,” Pollack, a longtime advocate for the gift ban, said it’s disappointing and a weak attempt to address recent controversy.

“There’s a whole avalanche of problems. This is a snowball,” Pollack said, adding that March on Harrisburg has planned a series of directives to pressure Corman into amending the proposal to include the gift ban.

“It’s been decades. They know this is an embarrassment; they know that this is an issue, and they refuse to address it. It’s something, but it’s the bare minimum,” he said. “He uses the language of building trust and the idea that people don’t trust their government. If he really wants to build trust, he’ll take on campaign finance reform and dark money. There’s a lot to do, and he’s not even starting at step one.”

Jason Thompson, a spokesperson for Corman, could not comment on the gift ban but said Corman supported efforts to ban lawmakers from receiving gifts of cash and gift cards in years past.

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