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DN editorial: Pa. should follow Philly's lead to reform election laws

IF LAWMAKERS in Harrisburg want to look for a place with effective and enforced election laws, they do not need to look far. They can look to Philadelphia.

IF LAWMAKERS in Harrisburg want to look for a place with effective and enforced election laws, they do not need to look far. They can look to Philadelphia.

Yes, Philadelphia.

The city has a far tougher election law than the state of Pennsylvania. For one thing, the city has limits on campaign giving. The state has none.

For another, we have the Board of Ethics to enforce the law. It tracks down mistakes and misdeeds in the filing or spending of campaign money - and has the power to levy thousands of dollars in fines.

The state has the Bureau of Elections, which has little power to enforce the law and a limit on how much it can fine those who disobey the state law.

We draw this contrast in light of the indictment last week of state Sen. Larry Farnese, the South Philadelphia Democratic who was accused of using $6,000 from his campaign fund allegedly to bribe a committee woman to support him as leader of the Center City's 8th Ward.

The $6,000 went to Bard College, a small liberal arts college in New York and was listed as a "donation." In reality, federal prosecutors allege, it went to pay for part of the tuition for the committeewoman's daughter, who was going abroad for a semester.

Farnese and other elected state officials are living under Pennsylvania's pretense of campaign finance law, where there are few limits on giving or spending.

Campaign money, the 1978 law states, is to be used "for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election." What does that mean? Almost anything a candidate says it means, including donations to favored charities, tickets to Eagles games, leasing a car, and the usual round of wining and dining.

The state law doesn't demand details. In 2014, for instance, Farnese spent an average of $2,500 a month from his campaign fund to "Cardmember Services." Obviously, those are payments made on credit-card charges. But, no more information is given - or required.

Another role model for the state is the federal government. For starters, federal election law forbids use of campaign money for "personal use." What does personal use mean? Any expense you would pay for out of your own funds under normal circumstances. Paying for dinner for you and your staff is permitted. Paying for dinner for your wife and children out of campaign funds is not.

Congress set up the Federal Election Commission to enforce the law, and the FEC has a staff to handle complaints. If asked, it also will give elected officials advice on what is a permissible expense and what is not.

Pennsylvania has no State Election Commission with similar powers. The state Bureau of Elections has no power to determine the validity of campaign spending. And it cannot impose fines on anything other than overdue reports - and those fines rarely exceed $1,000. Best to think of the bureau as a giant filing cabinet to hold the campaign reports filed by candidates.

Since the campaign finance law was passed 38 years ago, numerous bills have been introduced to update and improve the law. None of them have made it out of committee.

There is simply no political will in the Legislature to improve the law. As far incumbents are concerned, the law works just fine - for them.