Many people still think of Philadelphia as corrupt and contented, and, sure, it re-earns that reputation from time to time.
But it’s easy to overlook the fact that after we suffered the stain of a nasty pay-to-play scandal 10 years ago, we’ve enacted and enforced some of the toughest campaign-finance restrictions in the country. And it’s been a long time since you read a story about a big political contributor walking off with a fat, no-bid contract.
But City Councilman Wilson Goode Jr., never bashful about speaking his mind or pushing his agenda, wants to go further. He’s introducing a bill which would take the limits on political contributions by those seeking city contracts down to zero, and completely ban contributions to city candidates by lobbyists in the city.
I asked for his take on the effectiveness of the city’s existing pay-to-play measures.
“Even though we have not had a pay-to-play scandal, people are still concerned, and I am particularly concerned, about big business trying to influence government, particularly policy that relates to economic opportunity,” he said.
He cited lobbying around the soda tax, paid sick leave and the use and occupancy tax as examples of businesses using their money to exert influence over policy.
While I think the city’s progress in this area and the work of the city’s Board of Ethics is remarkable, Goode has a point that contributions within the legal limits can still be large enough to influence a City Council candidate.
An individual can give up to $2,900 a year to a city official or candidate’s campaign committee, and a business or political committee can give $11,500. Those are far smaller numbers than high rollers used to give to mayoral candidates back in the day, but they’re big enough to make a Council candidate take notice.
I showed the bill to Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia attorney who specializes in election and campaign-finance law. He believes in contribution limits and says the restrictions have curbed the city’s pay-to-play culture. But, he says, Goode’s new proposal is a solution in search of a problem.
“I think that it is way too restrictive on legitimate activities that don’t corrupt the process, and I think that the thing just goes too far,” Bonin said.
Bonin regularly attends Board of Ethics meetings to keep up on this stuff, because he has to. He advises clients on how to comply with the city’s campaign-finance laws, which include some pretty comprehensive disclosure requirements. Bonin says one thing we really need is more transparency — in the form of a city website with easily searchable and downloadable data.
I also spoke to George Burrell, a former city councilman who was a top aide when John Street was mayor. He’s an attorney who is now a registered lobbyist, so I asked what he thought of the ban on lobbyists’ contributions.
He said the restrictions will favor incumbents, give even more power to party leaders and make it harder for independent candidates to finance campaigns. And he said it won’t prevent lobbyists from building relationships with city officials.
“We’re dealing with smart people, so people will find ways to build those relationships,” he said. “For example, there would be no restriction on contributing to charities that are important to elected officials or to appointed officials.”
A lot of people don’t know that it was Goode who introduced the bill that first limited city campaign contributions in 2003.
That bill and a subsequent one by Michael Nutter, which imposed disclosure requirements and other restrictions on those seeking city contracts, passed with little input from political fundraisers or lobbyists. I don’t think they’ll be caught napping again.
When Goode’s bill will get a hearing and how much attention it gets in a Council busy with a school-funding crisis isn’t clear. I asked Goode how much he’s spoken to his colleagues and whether they support his proposals.
He didn’t answer directly. “I think people should think hard about whether they want to raise their campaign funds from people who absolutely want something from the city,” he said.