HARRISBURG - With Philadelphia's most expensive mayoral primary over, lawmakers here buckled down to address skyrocketing campaign spending and the role of major donors influencing the outcome of elections.
A panel of lawmakers heard testimony yesterday on a campaign-finance system that many regard as vulnerable to corruption and giving undue advantage to incumbents with their better-oiled fund-raising machines. Campaign finance is one of several major government-reform issues under consideration by the General Assembly. "We want to bring uniformity to the process and address the potential for corruption that larger contributions can cause," said Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery), cochairman of the Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform.
Pennsylvania prohibits corporate and union donations to campaigns, but is one of only 13 states that has no limit on individual donations.
Gov. Rendell, who raised $30 million in his reelection campaign last year, has proposed a $5,000 limit on contributions by individuals and political action committees in statewide elections as well as major cities, and a $2,000 limit in all other local races.
Rep. David Levdansky (D., Allegheny) who has tried for 20 years to get a bill on campaign-donation limits passed, is seeking to cap donations at even lower amounts to give challengers a better chance.
"Our goal is more competitive elections - that's what we want to see," said Levdansky. "Right now, incumbents win because they have such a fund-raising advantage. You look at an incumbent with a huge war chest and you think long and hard about running."
The topic of Philadelphia's priciest-ever mayoral primary, for which candidates raised upward of $20 million, was front and center at the hearing.
Philadelphia's campaign-finance law limits individual contributions to candidates, but not personal contributions to one's own campaign.
Rep. Robert Freeman (D., Northampton) would like to change that.
He said a new campaign law should seek to rein in wealthy candidates, such as Philadelphia mayoral contender Tom Knox, who poured $10 million of his own money into his campaign.
Knox's loss defied current trends, which show that candidates win 85 percent of the time when they have the financial advantage, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Freeman proposes capping total expenditures and introducing public financing to help challengers with limited funds.
"We have to level the playing field with millionaire candidates," said Freeman.
The bipartisan panel plans to vote on the campaign-finance proposal in June, along with other proposals that would radically alter the political landscape in Pennsylvania. These include reducing the size of the legislature, imposing legislative term limits and giving the public greater access to government records.
The panel's recommendations would then go to the full House for consideration.
A spokesman for House Majority leader Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) said that DeWeese has long supported limiting campaign donations but that he has not yet committed to advancing a particular bill.
"He supports campaign-finance reform personally but he hasn't gotten the pulse of his caucus," said DeWeese's press secretary, Tom Andrews.
Nevertheless, good-government advocates say with the "reform fever" sweeping the Capitol, they stand a solid chance of getting these bills passed.
"It's better now than it's ever been," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania. "There's a growing recognition that if you really want to change the culture of Harrisburg, you have to limit the money."