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For a better Pennsylvania: Part 1 - money

Too much money in state politics kills competition and diminishes democracy, and Pennsylvania's a prime example.

Piles of money in Pa. politics don’t help a poorly performing state.
Piles of money in Pa. politics don’t help a poorly performing state.Read moreTNS

(This is first in a series of weekly columns, each dealing with one aspect of state politics and government that, if changed, could make Pennsylvania better.)

Few connect the dots.

Few appreciate links between the underpinnings of Pennsylvania politics and government, and routinely disappointing results from both.

Why, for example, can't budgets get done on time, or well?

Why does the state rank 45th in fiscal health, per recent data from George Mason University?

Why does U.S. News & World Report, using metrics such as health care, infrastructure, and integrity of state government, put us 30th among states, lowest of any northeastern state?

And why are we nationally known for corruption?

I'd argue it's because the framework of our politics – long in place and never improved – is flawed and weak, all but assuring poor performance.

This column looks at just one part of that framework: our campaign-finance laws.

They're bad. Among the nation's worst.

We're one of only 11 states (the only northeastern state) with no limits on contributions for state office or state judge.

Oh, there's language saying corporations and unions can't contribute to candidates. But their officers, members, and PACs pour money into the process.

In just three years – 2014, 2015, 2016 – state House, Senate, row office, judicial, and gubernatorial candidates got $267 million in contributions.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics says that tops all but three states: Illinois, California, and Texas — each more populated than Pennsylvania — and it's much more than any neighboring state, including New York.

The bulk comes from special interests: unions, business, lawyers, lobbyists. It's a constant flow to candidates in both parties and various campaign committees.

Last month, as reported by the Caucus, a weekly covering state issues, there were 13 fund-raisers in Harrisburg over just three days. Among them, a reception for Sen. Tony Williams (D., Phila.), priced at $500 to $2,500 and a luncheon for Senate Appropriations Chairman Pat Browne (R., Lehigh), for $1,000.

Who do you think paid?

During the same period, an event at Philadelphia's Union League for Republican court candidates was headlined by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Saylor, who won a Nov. 7 retention election. It was priced at $2,500 to $10,000.

Think anyone with court business attended?

Campaign funds, due to our lax laws, can be used for virtually anything so long as somebody claims their use was "to influence an election."

There's no doubt they do that. There's no doubt they also influence policy.

The Inquirer and Daily News recently reported the natural gas-drilling industry spent $60 million-plus since 2010 to make sure Pennsylvania remains the lone major gas-producing state without a severance tax. It does.

The unfettered nature of campaign giving provides a louder voice to those who give, thereby diminishing democracy. And competition.

Limitless money, especially for incumbents, skews elections. In 2016, with all 203 House seats and 25 of 50 Senate seats up, half the "contests" offered no choice. They featured only one candidate.

Money isn't the only factor killing competition and creating near-bulletproof incumbents (others will be addressed in upcoming columns). But it's key.

"Caps on contributions and especially public financing can give those seeking public office the ability to run competitive campaigns," says national Common Cause VP for policy and litigation, Paul S. Ryan. "And since the greatest corruption threat is money handed directly to candidates, caps reduce the threat of corruption."

There's always legislation to cap contributions, make them more transparent, or create public financing, which 13 states have in some form. Such bills always die. The state's political class gains too much from the current system.

And, yes, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case, Citizens United, opened floodgates for funding campaigns. But 39 states and the federal government limit contributions. Pennsylvania should follow their lead.

Voters weary of watching politics and policy determined by high bidders should press lawmakers and 2018 candidates on campaign-finance reform.

We're "the cradle of American democracy." The cradle could use some rocking.