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How the Money Game is Changing Harrisburg

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

State Rep. Dwight Evans raised nearly $1.7 million for his campaign fund during the two-year cycle that ended with the 2008 election. But the most amazing part isn't the amount of money he amassed; it is the fact that Evans had no opposition in either the primary or general election.

His re-election was preordained, due to a lack of competition.

Why would a legislator expend so much time and energy raising so much money for a non-contest?

The answer to that question has a lot to do with the new reality in Harrisburg. The amount raised by legislative candidates has more than doubled in this decade, with most of it going to incumbents. Political action committees are proliferating.  The average size of donations is rising. The handful of legislative races that are truly competitive can now cost in the millions. Big money rules the day.

The National Institute of State Money in politics, which traces political giving in the 50 states, has charted the change.  According to its analysis, posted at followthemoney.org, legislative candidates raised $34 million for their campaign in 2000.  By 2008, it had risen to $70.3 million. This year, it is on a pace to go even higher. (See details here.)

But, that is only part of the story.

The political world of Harrisburg consists of two countries. In the largest, all is peaceful.  Most incumbents - insulated by money and representing districts where the lines are drawn to favor their re-election - face only token or weak opposition. In fact, many have no opponents at all. This year, there is no general election contest in 70 of the 203 House seats and 11 of the 25 Senate seats. - about the norm in any given election cycle.(See details here.)

In the smaller country, there is no peace. Intensive and expensive warfare wages between the two political parties over a relative handful of contested seats  -- they sometimes number fewer than a dozen -- usually centered in districts suddenly made competitive because of the retirement or death of an incumbent.

Years ago, the local parties would pick the candidates to run for these vacant seats, support them with organizational and financial support, and send them to Harrisburg.

That is no longer the case.  The locus of power has shifted to Harrisburg. Today, more often than not, legislative leaders recruit the candidates, finance their campaigns, handle their polling, media and direct mail and provide them with campaign workers and consultants.

Most of the money, staff and expertise for these functions are handled by the campaign committees, set up by each of the four caucuses, for the sole purpose of running this election machinery.

This is the activity that landed state Rep. Mike Veon in jail, convicted of using legislative employees to work on his and other campaigns and then giving them bonuses - paid for by the taxpayers.  Veon was convicted this year for actions that took place in the 2005-2006 election cycle.

It also has landed former House Speaker John Perzel in trouble with the law.  Perzel was indicted earlier this year for purchasing a multi-million dollar computer system with taxpayers' funds to provide detailed information on voters.  Perzel has said it was used for legitimate legislative purposes - so lawmakers could better stay in touch with constituents.  The state grand jury said it was, in reality, part of the House Republican  election apparatus, designed to yield voter data that would help the GOP win contested seats. Perzel is due to stand trial later this year.

Both these activities are sideshows compared to the main action: a sophisticated, expensive election effort run by the caucuses and fueled with campaign donations from political action committees, lobbyists and big individual givers.

These are legal, aboveground activities that the public and the media rarely pay much attention to, but they are extensive and expensive.

During the last election cycle, the four caucuses - House and Senate, Republican and Democrat - raised and spent $20 million on a relative handful of election campaigns - again, usually for open seats.(See details here.)

As head of the House Appropriations Committee and a ranking Democrat, Evans is expected to feed the kitty.  Out of the $1.7 million he raised in the last election cycle about $600,000 was sent to the House Democratic Campaign Committee, He sent another $245,000 to individual candidates, usually incumbents.

Other legislative leaders make similar, large donations.  For instance, Perzel, while he was still House Speaker, gave $1.4 million to the House Republican Campaign Committee from his campaign fund.  House Republican Whip Mike Turzai gave $670,000 to the HRCC in the 2007-2008-election cycle.  Joe Scarlatti, Republican leader in the state Senate gave $1.4 million to the SRCC.  The list could go on.

These contributions are not done out of the kindness of the leaders' hearts. The leaders  supply money to win friends and influence rank-and-file legislators.  Most leadership positions in the House and Senate are filled by votes of legislators in the caucus. In Harrisburg as elsewhere, money is power and the money they give to help elect new caucus members and assist existing ones solidifies their power over the caucus and the legislative process.

In short, it gives the leaders more power.

The process, as one lobbyist put it, results in an "obscene, never ending" search for campaign contributions that can swell a legislative leader's campaign fund into the multi-million-dollar range.

It also has the effect of masking the true source of money for a campaign.  For example, in a contested Senate election in Westmoreland County in 2008, the Republican and Democratic candidates spent nearly $2.5 million, with about 80 percent of it being listed as coming from caucus committees or individual senators.

In reality, the money came from the usual array of special interests - trial lawyers, business interests, labor unions, lobbyists, law firms, etc. It was simply funneled through the leaders.

The caucuses and leaders have long played a role in election campaigns.  It is in their best interests to get a sufficient number of new members elected to tilt control of the legislative chamber to their party.

It is the extent of that effort - and its sheer size in terms of money - that has changed in recent years.  The result is a legislative leadership with more power, rank-and-file with less; more influence for the biggest of givers, especially the million-dollar political action committees.

Partisanship is often blamed for the paralysis in the state legislature, but that is just one factor. In Harrisburg, the money culture rules - and it is tightening its gripe on the legislative process.

In the next two parts of this Metropolis special report, we will reveal the biggest players in the money game. And we will show how quickly a new player in town - the gas companies interested in exploiting the Marcellus Shale - have entered the game.


Part II: The Money Game: Pennsylvania as PAC Land

Flag Photo: The Pennsylvania State House Chamber

 

 

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