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From the archives 2020

Pa.’s lobbying law got tougher in 2018. But it still falls short in exposing influence.

by Daniel Simmons-Ritchie |

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If you’re an advocate for government transparency, it would be difficult to not feel disappointed that one of the biggest supporters of Pennsylvania’s lobbying disclosure law was fined $19,900 for breaking it.

As I reported last week, Common Cause Pennsylvania was fined for filing a quarterly lobbying expense report 112 days past the deadline. The group, I learned, was also late in filing four other reports since 2018 for reasons its director couldn’t explain. Common Cause’s national office ultimately issued a public apology and vowed it would ensure all reports are filed on time.

In some ways, Common Cause’s fine is a reminder of the strides Pennsylvania has taken to improve lobbying transparency and penalize those who breach the law.

Today, groups or businesses that try to influence elected officials must register with the state and regularly report how much they spend, the lobbyists they employ, and the subject of their lobbying. That’s important information for Pennsylvanians to have.

But the law continues to have major shortcomings.

The Washington, D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation gave Pennsylvania a “C” rating in 2015 on its national scorecard for lobbying transparency. Although the General Assembly made some tweaks to the law in 2018 — increasing penalties for groups that fail to register or file on time — major flaws remain.

Unlike in New Jersey and New York, Pennsylvania lobbyists and lobbying groups do not have to report the bills or lawmakers they’re targeting or the positions they’re advocating for.

And unlike those neighboring states, which require lobbyists to report spending as itemized lists, expenses are reported in Pennsylvania using vague descriptions, like “direct” and “indirect” communications. It’s also possible groups are underreporting expenditures, a recent review by a state House committee found.

Pennsylvania’s lobbying disclosure website, meanwhile, remains slow and cumbersome to use, inhibiting the public’s ability to easily view reports.

Without better information and better access, the public is left in the dark about how some of the most powerful groups in Pennsylvania and outside of it are trying to shape state policy.

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