The Pennsylvania Legislature is acting to give citizens a better look at who funds political campaigns in the state.
A measure requiring electronic filing of campaign finance reports appears headed for passage in the State House, at least in part because Gov. Tom Corbett wanted more information about his opponent’s backers in the 2010 governor’s race.
Pennsylvania has long been a backwater of campaign finance regulation. It’s one of a handful of states that allow unlimited contributions.
It does require campaigns and political committees to submit reports listing their contributions and expenses. But James Browning of Common Cause said the state does a terrible job of making that information accessible to the public.
“Pennsylvania is really in the dark ages when it comes to campaign finance disclosure,” Browning said.
A big problem is that political candidates aren’t required to submit campaign finance reports electronically. To get information from a report filed on paper up on the state’s website, employees have to enter that material into a database, or pay private vendors to do it.
So candidates who aren’t anxious to show nosy citizens, reporters or political rivals what they’re up to know they can submit a paper report — even a hand-written one — and mail it the day it’s due to maximize the delay until it’s available online.
Ron Ruman of the Pennsylvania Department of State says of 1700 reports filed in the April primary, 1300 were on paper.
An exhausting paper chase
“So you’re talking about bins that come from the post office, literally stacked to the top and overflowing with campaign finance reports,” Ruman said, “that our small staff here has to open, check the name, verify the number, and scan those.”
Common Cause found that the weekend before the April election, fewer than half the reports for state legislative candidates were available online.
An obvious solution to the problem is to require candidates to file electronically, and state Rep. Tim Briggs, a two-term Democrat from Montgomery County, began working on a bill to do that last year.
He found officials from the administration of Republican Gov. Corbett supportive and helpful. He said he understood why after talking with administration staff.
“And what I actually got, a takeaway, was that when he was campaigning for governor last time, he couldn’t access his Democratic opponent’s campaign reports,” Briggs said in an interview.
Democratic candidate Dan Onorato had filed reports on paper, and state officials couldn’t get them up online. So Corbett couldn’t see who was funding his opponent’s campaign
“It was personally frustrating to him, that how in the 21st century could we not get this information on a timely basis?” Briggs said.
Corbett declined a request for comment on why he favored the electronic filing requirement, referring calls to officials from the Pennsylvania Department of State, which supervises elections. They said they favored electronic filing because it would increase transparency in the political process and save tax dollars.
As the idea of electronic filing gained credibility, it became clear that in the Republican-controlled Legislature, Democrat Briggs’ bill wasn’t going to be the vehicle. His legislation stalled, and this year a similar bill sponsored by Central Pennsylvania Republican Lynda Culver got traction.
It’s been approved in committee and is poised for passage.
More work remains
But Browning of Common Cause said there’s more work to be done. The search functions on the state’s online system are relatively primitive, he said.
“For example, if you want to find out how much the president of a natural gas company has given to all candidates in Pennsylvania, you would have to literally look through hundreds of reports and thousands of pages,” Browning said.
“In a more modern system, which a lot of states have, you can just enter the name, and it will enter all of their contributions over time, even going back 10 years,” he said.
State elections officials say they know the system needs work, and it will take time and money to improve it.
Briggs would love to see bigger reforms such as contribution limits, but he says he’s learned to be patient, and he looks forward to seeing Culver’s bill become law.
“Once that happens, then we’ll chip away at the next piece of the puzzle,” Briggs said.
Browning said that once information about contributions is more easily accessible, citizens and interest groups are more likely to demand other changes.