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The Money Game: Pennsylvania as PAC Land

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By William Ecenbarger

Money not only talks in Pennsylvania politics-it's keeping up a running conversation.

Between 1999 and 2008, total money raised for state political campaigns nearly doubled, from $74.4 million to $133 million.

Who gives all this money to candidates for governor, auditor general, treasurer, attorney general and legislator?

Almost anyone with an axe to grind, or a cross to bear, in Harrisburg.

Some of it comes from individuals, some of it from corporations and unions and most of it comes from "political action committees," ranging from ABC PAC (Pennsylvania Associated Builders & Contractors) to Z-PAC (Pennsylvania Society of Anesthesiologists).

In recent years, the number of PACs has grown and the amount of money they give out each year has gone up as the state legislature grapples with complex issues - with strong, often competing, interests.  "Eighty percent of the fights in the legislature are really turf wars," said one lobbyist. And these interests are ready to throw money into the process via their PACs.

Sometimes it is not easy to sort out who is who. Some of the PACs try to cloak their identities in altruism. The "Committee for a Better Tomorrow," is actually the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association, whose vision of an improved future has something to do with fewer restrictions on lawsuits. The "People for Good Government" PAC consists of executives of the electric company, PPL Corp. The Pennsylvania Committee for Affordable Housing PAC is the Pennsylvania Builders Association.

Pennsylvania law currently forbids political corporations to make campaign contributions, but this is easily circumvented by creating a PAC a company's employees can give to. And thus we have SUN PAC (Sunoco Inc.), HIPAC (Harleysville Insurance), PECO PAC (PECO Energy), GEPAC (General Electric) and WAL PAC (Wal-Mart).

During the 2007-08 election cycle, labor organizations were the biggest special interest contributors with $11.5 million, followed closely by lawyers at $10.5 million. Among business interests, realtors gave $2.8 million; insurers, $2.4 million; electric utilities, $1.8 million; builders, $1.4 million, and bankers, $1 million. Politically conservative organizations and individuals kicked in $3.4 million, and health professionals like doctors and hospitals, gave $1.9 million. (See details on the top PACS.)

As one lobbyist explained, the demand for more money has been met by an expansion in the number of PACs and the size of contributions.  "There are," he said, "a lot more players."

The information in this article comes from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan research group based in Helena, Montana, whose website is followthemoney.org.

The most remarkable statistic is this: During the 10-year period beginning with the 1999-2000 election cycle, contributions to finance elections for the 203 state House seats and the 50 Senate seats more than doubled - from $34 million to $70.3 million.

Why is this remarkable? Because few of the elections were really competitive.

For example, during the 2007-08 cycle, when there were 228 legislative seats at stake (all House seats and half the Senate seats), contributions came to $69 million - despite the fact that, according to the NIMSP, only 130 of them were even contested; and only 36 of the 228 elections were truly competitive (meaning both candidates raised similar amounts of money).

In that same election, the 200 incumbent legislators on the ballot raised three times as much money as their opponents (if they had one).

And the money-saturated incumbents did well--195 of the 200 won. (For a detailed discussion of legislative races see Part One.)  

Despite the lack of competitiveness, the average amount of money raised for a House seat was $168,000; the Senate figure was $606,000 in the last election cycle.  It probably will rise once again this year.

Indeed, Pennsylvania legislators have elevated fund-raising to an art form. Freshmen legislators elected in November often start filling their campaign coffers even before they are sworn in for the first time in January. In 2007-08, the even 25 senators who were not up for election raised about $8 million.  When it comes to raising money, there is no off-season.

The largest single group of special interest contributors were organizations representing teachers, electrical workers, carpenters, steam-fitters, painters, ironworkers, plumbers, masons, boiler-makers, bricklayers, plasterers and dozens of other labor groups. About 75 per cent of this money went to Democrats.

Lawyers, and especially trial lawyers, were the second big contribution group, and again about 75 per cent of this money went to Democrats.     

Health professionals were led by the Pennsylvania Medical Society, which gave 72 per cent of its $275,000 total to Republicans. Other health industry givers were chiropractors, dentists, orthopedists, optometrists, ophthalmologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, radiologists, pharmacists, physical therapists, nurses, physician's assistants, nurse practitioners, dental hygienists, podiatrists, and audiologists. Overall, Republicans received about two thirds of this money, though there were exceptions: dentists split their money evenly while psychologists favored Democrats.

Business interests patronized Republicans by a 2-to-1 ratio, while conservative policy organizations gave nearly every penny to the GOP.

Little of this money is spent foolishly. For example, NIMSB calculates that the tobacco industry donated $415,950 to Pennsylvania candidates or their committees in 2007-08. Most generous were the Pennsylvania RJR PAC (aka R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.) at $50,150, and the US TEAM PAC (aka U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co.) gave $36,200

It's not just a coincidence that Pennsylvania, despite being strapped for cash, is the last state in the nation that does not tax smokeless tobacco and cigars.

Most political patrons - teachers unions, auto dealers, doctors - have been at it for years. But hot issues can bring newcomers to the forefront. There are massive amounts of money to be made by drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus shale regions of Pennsylvania, and this has brought infusions of campaign cash from the drilling companies.

In recent years the Legislature has authorized slot machines and casino gambling; Common Cause, the public interest group, estimates that from 2001 to 2008, the gambling industry gave $4.4 million to state candidates, and another $12.3 million came from lawyers and lobbyists who represent gambling interests.

This year we can expect increased contributions from hospitals, insurers and other medical interests as they seek to impose their will on state laws and regulations to implement the new federal health care program.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Pennsylvania has one of the weakest campaign finance laws and allows virtually unlimited political money into its election system.

No one in power in Harrisburg seems interested in changing the rules of the money game.  They like it just the way it is.


Part III: The Money Game: Marcellus Shale Cash

 

Tomorrow: Oil and gas interests were never big givers in Pennsylvania - until a vast deposit of natural gas was discovered lying under the state. Then things changed.

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