HARRISBURG - While rank-and-file legislators grilled agency heads on their budget requests in stuffy Capitol hearing rooms Thursday, the top Republican in the state House was enjoying Pacific breezes on the fairway, 3,000 miles away at the iconic Pebble Beach golf resort.
Speaker Sam Smith's $5,000-a-person campaign fund-raising event, a golf outing on the oceanside greens made famous by one of the premier events on the PGA Tour.
Smith's spokesman, Steve Miskin, said the speaker went to California this week for a fund-raiser for the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, a national group that helps elect GOP candidates to state offices and of which he serves as vice chairman. Smith decided to pair his own "once-in-a-lifetime" campaign fund-raiser with the national group's event, Miskin said.
"The speaker decided, if he was to have one golf outing in his entire life, he would have it in an absolutely spectacular location - and Pebble Beach fits that description," Miskin said in an interview.
The two-day event for Smith's Keystone Leader's PAC included a reception and dinner Wednesday night. Hotel rooms at the Lodge at Pebble Beach were an additional $655 a night.
The head of one nonpartisan Harrisburg watchdog group, Eric Epstein, said he was disappointed that Smith - whom he credited with a reputation as "one of the good guys" in state government - would invite donors to such an event when so many major issues were pending in the Capitol.
"On the political menu is the budget, transportation, Penn State, privatization of lottery and liquor stores, and negotiating Obamacare," said Epstein, founder of Rock the Capital. "This is the worst time to be in California playing golf with people at $5,000 a pop."
Miskin defended Smith's absence, saying House speakers have no formal role in the annual budget hearing process under way in Harrisburg.
Legislators inviting lobbyists and other potential donors to campaign fund-raisers is common at budget time. Still, past and present lawmakers who have served as campaign committee chairs raised another issue: the rarity of holding such fund-raisers on the other side of the continent.
State Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Phila.), who just stepped down as chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, said few fund-raising events were held outside Pennsylvania's borders, with the occasional exceptions of Washington, New York City, or the Jersey Shore.
And former Gov. Ed Rendell was a well-known exception to the rule. As the onetime head of the Democratic National Committee, his fund-raising Rolodex was far more expansive, and he could reliably tap dozens of out-of-state donors for contributions and headline receptions outside Pennsylvania's borders.
"It's just not something you see all that often," Boyle said.
The Keystone Leader's PAC registered as a political action committee in 2003, according to documents filed with the Pennsylvania Department of State. Tony Aliano, Smith's longtime legislative chief of staff, was initially listed as its chair; in 2011, the PAC filed an amendment to its registration naming another chair.
Since 2008, the PAC has raised more than $1.5 million - in the last year alone $650,000, much of it from PACs associated with natural gas drilling companies, insurance giants, law firms, and trade unions.
The fund has also given generously to other candidates and campaign committees, sending $100,000 last year to the House Republican Campaign Committee (the fund-raising arm for state House Republicans) and $5,000 each to the candidates who ran unsuccessful Republican campaigns for state attorney general and auditor general.
An invitation to the Pebble Beach event, a copy of which was obtained by The Inquirer, is headlined, "Please Join Us for a Golf Outing at Pebble Beach With Speaker Sam Smith." Would-be attendees were told they had to pay $655 for lodging.
The invitation also asked if recipients wanted more information about becoming a $25,000 sponsor of the separate Republican Legislative Campaign Committee event Thursday and Friday at Pebble Beach.
Invitees were told to contact a representative of the Trinity Group, a public relations firm headed by John J. O'Connell, a longtime Harrisburg lobbyist. The firm's recent clients have ranged from the union that represents state liquor-store clerks to EQT Corp., a major natural gas driller whose executives contributed $13,000 last year to the Keystone Leader's PAC, state records show.
Efforts to reach officials of the Trinity Group for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.
Smith, of Punxsutawney, is in his 14th two-year term in the House and his second as its speaker.