BEFORE BEING charged last month with 82 counts of corruption, fraud and conspiracy, state Rep. John Perzel was one of the most prolific fund-raisers in the General Assembly. Like other powerful legislators, he took advantage of Pennsylvania's nearly nonexistent campaign-finance laws to legally rake in huge contributions.
Currently, there are no limits for individuals or political action committees. If you want to drop $1 million into the coffers of someone campaigning for state office, there's nothing stopping you. As a result, candidates are forced to raise large amounts of cash to remain competitive.
But it's easier than you might think, at least for some lawmakers. During the last election cycle, Perzel used his political leverage to raise nearly $2.4 million. He got 17 contributions of $25,000 or more. And he wasn't the only one. All four legislative leaders from both parties - Sen. Dominic Pileggi, Sen. Robert Mellow, House Speaker Keith McCall and state Rep. Sam Smith - received multiple contributions of more than $25,000 in 2008.
No one gives that kind of money to politicians without expecting something in return. The biggest donations come from individuals and PACs connected to industries that are subject to state regulation or which bid on state contracts. That includes lawyers, construction firms, unions and health-care companies, among others.
And all of this giving has an impact.
Gov. Rendell recently told the Scranton Times-Tribune that Pennsylvania's campaign finance laws were partially to blame for the 100-day budget impasse. For example, special interests lobbied against proposals to close loopholes in the sales tax that could have generated $4.3 billion in revenue. (Rendell should know. He got more than 50 different individual donors to each give $100,000 to his 2002 campaign.)
So what's the solution? The most important change would be enacting contribution limits for state offices. Rendell has proposed capping individual contributions for statewide elections at $5,000 and those from PACs at $10,000. A stricter limit of $2,000 would apply to candidates for the Legislature, and to local elections.
But simply putting caps on contributions isn't enough. We also need to increase the oversight of campaign donations by requiring more frequent reporting by candidates. For example, we need to be able to track, in almost real time, the amount of money casino interests are giving to lawmakers considering legalizing table games. It's not very useful to find out how much these special interests gave only after a vote has been taken.
(One potential hitch: The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case right now that many expect will overturn the ban against corporations and unions giving directly to campaigns. This could have implications for Pennsylvania reform.)
GIVEN THE IMMENSE amount of money raised by elected officials, it would seem that reform is unlikely. However, the truth is that many lawmakers are tired of constantly being forced to raise more and more money. And donors are sick of being constantly asked. Both sides might be willing to unilaterally disarm.
However, nothing will happen without pressure from the public.
(For information about how you can take action, as well as links to groups working for reform, visit www.ourmoneyphilly.com.)