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Editorial: 'Money, it's a gas'

Money talks louder than ever in Harrisburg, but at least citizens have a better idea now of whose cash gets the most attention.

Money talks louder than ever in Harrisburg, but at least citizens have a better idea now of whose cash gets the most attention.

Three powerful industries - gambling, natural-gas drillers, and tobacco - spent more than $4.5 million this year on lobbying in Harrisburg, The Inquirer reported. They were largely successful, despite a recession that had state officials scrambling to find new sources of tax revenue.

Tobacco interests spent a combined $1.5 million through Sept. 30. Reynolds American Inc., whose subsidiary is the nation's second-largest producer of smokeless tobacco products, spent $670,658 on lobbying.

Lo and behold, the legislature dropped proposals to tax smokeless tobacco and cigars. Pennsylvania remains the only state without a tax on smokeless products; new taxes were imposed on cigarillos and cigarettes.

Casino owners spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to persuade legislators to allow table games just five years after the state legalized slots. Of course, the two Philadelphia slots parlors have yet to even open.

And natural-gas drillers spent at least $1.6 million to lobby Harrisburg against a severance tax on production, a proposal advocated by Gov. Rendell earlier this year. They were successful in defeating the proposal.

The ability of such industries to pour buckets of money into the fray in Harrisburg demonstrates how effectively groups with big war chests can make their case in a hurry. And it's another argument for setting campaign-contribution limits in Pennsylvania. The interests that spend bundles on lobbying also can contribute virtually unlimited amounts of money to individual political candidates.

The lack of campaign-finance limits in Pennsylvania puts average citizens at a disadvantage against such powerful interests. It's one explanation for why the legislature tried to impose a tax on arts groups this year instead of on tobacco companies or drillers.

The good news is that the state's lobbying disclosure law, which took effect in 2007, is working relatively well. Lobbying firms must disclose their expenses and the general topics on which they're working. For years, Pennsylvania was the only state in the nation without such a law. Big-money lobbying took place without much scrutiny.

The lobbying law could be improved, however. It still allows lobbyists to give public officials gifts of less than $250 in value, or entertainment of up to $650, without disclosing it.

And there are loopholes in disclosing who is or isn't a lobbyist. For example, former state Supreme Court Justice Stephen Zappala served two years as executive director of the Pennsylvania Casino Association, although the connection wasn't disclosed until the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported it last month.

The lobbying picture in Harrisburg is getting clearer, even if the image isn't very pretty.