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Best Capitol money can buy

Pennsylvania's go-go approach to campaign finance has serious consequences.

By Jan Jarrett and

Sandra L. Strauss

Pennsylvania is still one of just 11 states that allow unlimited campaign contributions to candidates for elective office. As a result, political dollars influence legislative consideration of almost every issue in Harrisburg, and far too often that influence runs counter to the public interest.

It's an open secret in the Capitol that big investments in political campaigns translate into power over the legislative process. Those who can afford large contributions can get their issues positioned as legislative priorities, dramatically increasing the chances their positions will prevail when it's time for a vote.

This system is breeding mistrust and widespread cynicism, threatening public confidence in the state's democratic institutions.

We can and should fix this now. Pennsylvania needs to join the 39 other states that have enacted laws restricting campaign contributions, protecting their citizens and the political process from the corrosive impact of unlimited contributions. This would restore public confidence in government and level the playing field for public interests and special interests.

Reform-minded state legislators from both parties have introduced a number of bills that would put reasonable limits on campaign contributions. One of them, House Bill 2162, sponsored by Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.), is poised for a vote by the full House as soon as the Appropriations Committee releases it. In the state Senate, Jane Earll (R., Erie) has high-quality campaign-finance legislation awaiting committee action.

Two powerful forces are at play in the campaign-finance game. First, the candidates who are the best fund-raisers are the most likely to win; the "wealth primary," or the candidates' competition for donations, eliminates some of the most gifted potential leaders before the first vote is cast. Second, large donors' contributions empower their interests and diminish legislators' accountability to voters.

In our current system, most of the "smart money" goes to incumbents. Approximately 90 percent of special-interest money from political action committees goes to incumbents; it is not uncommon for half or more of an incumbent's political war chest to come from these special-interest funders. And on those rare occasions when the special interests place their bets on the losing candidate, they tend to turn around and start contributing to the winning candidates they opposed.

Big donors also hedge their bets by contributing to members of both political parties, especially to lawmakers who sit on the committees that consider the legislation they're interested in. These donations are investments in access to political power.

Last year's budget debacle provided a stark illustration of the power of money to thwart good public policy. In a year in which the state desperately needed every penny it could find for essential services, the legislature - unlike that of every other state with a large natural gas industry - refused to tax the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.

A recent Common Cause report revealed the magnitude of the gas industry's investment in the political process: $3 million in donations to candidates, much of it since January 2008. And the industry's spending on lobbying has tripled over the last three years, with expenses topping out at nearly $1.7 million in 2009 alone.

The result? Regular citizens pay more in taxes, special interests avoid taxes, and public resources, health, and safety get kicked to the curb.

Limiting campaign contributions would do two things: prevent the reality and perception of corruption, and elevate the importance of ordinary citizens' needs and aspirations in the governing process. Limits on campaign contributions would reassure voters that the bullhorn of large special-interest contributions isn't drowning out their voices.

It's time for Pennsylvania to leave the "dirty dozen" states that still allow unlimited campaign contributions to corrupt the democratic system. If Pennsylvanians truly want to end the pervasive culture of corruption in our government, if we want public policy to be prioritized and enacted on the basis of necessity and merit, and if we want to restore citizens' confidence in government, then we must insist our legislators put limits on campaign contributions.

And we need to tell them that our votes for them depend on their votes for reform.