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Pa.’s unreliable lobbyist disclosure website is getting a user-friendly upgrade

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Pennsylvania’s lobbying disclosure laws make it easy to underreport expenditures and difficult to ensure compliance.
Pennsylvania’s lobbying disclosure laws make it easy to underreport expenditures and difficult to ensure compliance.
TOM GRALISH / Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — An initiative to improve the online system that lobbyists use to disclose which organizations have hired them and how they spend money to influence policy got a major boost in this year’s state budget.

A line item listed only as “Lobbying Disclosure” under the Department of State’s general appropriations budget is funded at $714,000 for the fiscal year that started in July — a 150% increase over the previous year. The money is a mix of dollars from the state’s general fund and fees paid by lobbyists, principals, and lobbying firms for licensure.

According to a Department of State spokesperson, the money will fund an IT upgrade to a system that has been criticized as lagging, unintuitive, and often down.

“The new lobbying disclosure module will give the lobbying community new tools to register and manage lobbying records,” the agency spokesperson said. “Development of the module is in its early stages, but it is the department’s expectation that the user interface and the reporting functions will be more intuitive and user-friendly than the current system.”

A 2019 report commissioned by the state House Government Oversight Committee found that Pennsylvania’s lobbying disclosure laws make it easy to underreport expenditures and difficult to ensure compliance.

State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), then chair of the committee, told Spotlight PA he’s unsure if the report influenced the spending increase. “I’d like to think [the report] triggered it, but I don’t think the administration gives a crap what the legislature does,” he said.

Justin Fleming — president of the Pennsylvania Association for Government Relations (PAGR), a professional association for lobbyists — said the system desperately needs an update. He said lags when updating the website have resulted in inaccurate disciplinary action and delays that required multiple attempts for users to update the organizations or people that they worked with.

“It is something that we have talked about in PAGR for years. We certainly welcome the resources being allocated,” said Fleming. “Everybody’s time is wasted if the system isn’t working”

A Spotlight PA analysis found that 15 line items received a more than 100% boost in this year’s budget. Other programs included:

  • “Agricultural preparedness and response,” + 1033.3%: This line item got a major increase — from $3 million to $34 million — so the state can respond to animal diseases, invasive pests, and other emergencies that affect the state’s agriculture industry. Around $8 million has already been used to target spotted lanternflies.

  • “The University of Pennsylvania — Center for Infectious Disease,” +541%: The additional $1.6 million in funding was allocated as the result of the bird flu outbreak last year and its effect on the poultry industry. A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture also cited the threat of African swine fever.

  • “Ready to Succeed Scholarships,” 331.3%: This program is intended to aid low-income students in secondary academic institutions and is administered by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. It awards up to $2,000 to full-time students to cover tuition, books, and other living expenses. The agency requested $16.4 million but received nearly $24 million.

  • “Susquehanna River Basin Commission,” +261%: This commission was created in the 1970s to coordinate conservation efforts with the various federal and state agencies that the river traverses. Environmental projects in Pennsylvania saw a huge increase in funding this budget cycle. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission’s funding went from $205,000 to $740,000.

  • “Local municipal relief,” +144.2%: This money can be used to assist people or political subdivisions that were affected by disasters, public safety emergencies, or other situations deemed worthy by the Department of Community and Economic Development to repair damages to residences and private or public property. Funding is limited to projects that don’t qualify for federal assistance, and the average grant is $150,000. A spokesperson for the department said the program’s positive reception warranted the funding increase.

Spotlight PA’s Stephen Caruso contributed reporting.

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