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Some interests more special than the rest

The governor wages selective war on favor-seekers.

By Matthew J. Brouillette

In his eighth and final budget address last month, Gov. Rendell repeatedly criticized "special interests" for stymieing his legislative proposals. He said, " ... the time has come to put stricter controls not simply on what they report, but on what they do." And he called for a cap on special-interest groups' campaign contributions, implying that such limits would lower the hurdles for his policy proposals.

So it was ironic when, just days after the governor hammered special interests, I heard from dozens of Rendell's fellow Democrats in the state House, who wanted me to contribute amounts ranging from $250 to $5,000 to their reelection campaigns.

After I inquired about why I was receiving these unsolicited requests via mail and e-mail, I was informed that the House Democratic Campaign Committee trolls Pennsylvania's online database of lobbyist disclosure forms for special interests it can solicit for contributions. (Note: I'm listed as a lobbyist because the state's poorly written lobbyist disclosure law classifies anyone who "directly or indirectly" communicates with elected officials as a lobbyist.)

Of course, Rendell hadn't declared war on all special interests - only those that oppose his tax-borrow-and-spend agenda. For example, while he lambastes the natural-gas industry for opposing yet another tax on top of the several it already pays, he gives a pass to the special interests clamoring for more of the state's money.

Penn Future, an advocacy organization started by John Hanger, now the state's environmental protection secretary, lobbies legislators and the governor for higher taxes and onerous mandates while receiving millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded grants. Ironically, the organization then uses its money to lobby for even more taxes, fees, and government mandates. Indeed, Rendell is proposing to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on additional subsidies - along with mandates - for "green jobs."

So while job creators who are trying to keep the government from taking more of their money are labeled evil special interests by the governor, those that lobby for more of other people's money are somehow considered virtuous.

Then there's Rendell's personal interest. Ballard Spahr, his old law firm, is linked to about $990,000 in contributions to his campaign coffers from 2001 through 2008. And that doesn't include the $250,000 annual salary the firm paid Rendell when he was "between jobs" and running for governor, in 2001 and 2002. Meanwhile, Ballard Spahr has received at least $8.4 million in state money during Rendell's tenure as governor.

Other special interests that apparently have the governor's blessing include teachers' unions, which lobby for hundreds of millions of dollars more every year, and construction unions, which lobby for such special privileges as "project labor agreements."

Then there are the politically connected corporations and individuals getting taxpayer handouts, such as the film tax credit that gave multimillionaire producer M. Night Shyamalan $35 million, or the $15 million to temporarily keep Harley Davidson in York County.

Obviously, one man's special interest is another man's campaign cash cow; just ask the House Democrats. But the special interests that are really working against the interests of the people of Pennsylvania are the ones hitting the jackpot of taxpayer-funded grants, contracts, and carve-outs. Lobbyists working to defend their clients from further government encroachment on their private property are hardly the same as special interests trying to get more of what they didn't earn.

If the governor really wanted to take aim at special interests in Harrisburg, he would have to start by declaring war on those darkening his door.