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The Investigator

Your guide to the Capitol & stories holding the powerful to account

February 13, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

A quiet week at the Capitol exploded Wednesday night when Sen. Joe Scarnati, the chamber's most powerful Republican, announced he won't run for reelection. If that sounds familiar, you may be remembering last month's retirement announcement from House Speaker Mike Turzai. Cue the election year speculation. 

Also this week: An independent office tasked with reviewing Pa.'s tax credits revealed fundamental issues with some programs. Plus, yet another retirement announcement (this one from the Mariner East pipeline system's biggest foe) and a declaration of war on a lobbying loophole highlighted by Spotlight PA.

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"It frustrates me a little bit to find this stuff out in the newspaper."

Rep. Seth Grove (R., York) on the Office of State Inspector General's failure to disclose a contract showing it purchased $160,000 in guns and ammo it can't use

 DISCLOSURE 

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

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.

Daniel Simmons-Ritchie, Spotlight PA

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 CAPITOL NOTEBOOK 

Shapiro sues Juul, mail-in ballots now available, and more from the week

» Generation vape: Following other states including Massachusetts, New York, and California, Attorney General Josh Shapiro has filed suit against Juul Labs, seeking a statewide ban on products made by the e-cigarette company. “JUUL knowingly targeted young people with tactics similar to the tobacco companies’ playbook,” Shapiro said. 

» Apply to vote from home at home: For the first time, all voters can request mail-in ballots via an online form. The change, part of a reform package passed last year, also gives potential voters more time to register — up to 15 days before an election. The deadline for applications is 5 p.m., April 21. 

» Overheard at the Capitol: "’I co-sponsored it to get those Fair Districts people off my back’ but they don’t want to vote on it”: Rep. Garth Everett (R., Lycoming) told the Morning Call some lawmakers who signed on to a bill to change the process for drawing legislative maps don't actually support it.

» "Unacceptable behavior": Nearly 40 organizations and 5,500 people signed a petition asking House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) to strip Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler) of his Environmental Resources & Energy Committee chairmanship. Metcalfe, a climate change skeptic, responded, “I refuse to back down or be intimidated by any of these socialist mobs or their reprehensible, fake, fear-generating tactics.”  

Cynthia Fernandez, Spotlight PA

Capitol Notebook by Spotlight PA provides updates on important news and notes from the halls of power in Harrisburg.
Can't-miss reads from this week
» PUBLIC SOURCE: Pa. governments are funded by court fines, fees some can't afford
» TRIBLIVE: The state's roads are covered in roughly 502 million pieces of litter 
» POST-GAZETTE: Allegheny Co. judge benched over "Aunt Jemima" allegation 
» INQUIRER: Progressives adopt "if you can't beat 'em" approach to campaign finance
» INQUIRER: AG Josh Shapiro launches unit to study old convictions 
» WHYY: In Pa.'s eviction capital, instability leads to low voter turnout
» AP: Proposed college scholarship program is popular, but finding funding won't be
» PENNLIVE: Free speech argument prevails in case of "Trump" flag burning
THE RIDDLER

Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org.

RIGHT OF WAY (Case No. 25): Four cars come to a four-way stop. None of them can figure out who was there first or who should go first, so they all go at the exact same time. None of them crash. How is that possible?
 
Stumped? Get a hint. Have a riddle? Send it to us.

Last week's answer: The green house is made of glass.

Congrats to Don H. who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who correctly answered: Annette I., George S., Kenneth J., Timothy M., Melanie B., Melinda C., Jeff W., Richard H., John R., Ed L., Christine R., Kathy W., Deborah D., Bob S., John M., Claudia M., Irene T., Michele M., Jeffrey F., Mark C., Jon N., Rachel C., and Mark V.
» This week's Riddler hint: Who's right?
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