Monday, January 28, 2008

Another Word on Reform

It has been said that the reason legislative and campaign finance reform are the most important issues before the state. Why? Because it is the lack of transparency in a number of areas that impacts the ability to make progress in energy, health care, and assorted other areas.

So, I took a look at some of things. For instance legislative spending accounts – how is your elected state senator or representative spending his or her office money. I’ve heard that reports on how these monies are spent are available. But, try as I might I can’t find them. They aren’t on the state house or state senate home pages. I have checked a variety of individual legislator’s websites, nothing there.

Lobbying expenditures are supposed to be available but really all you can find is a large pdf directory with business card info on a lot of lobbyists though it often doesn’t say what lobbying firm they work for. Nor can you find out who lobbyists spend their money on. Who got the free pricey dinners? You’ll never know.

Looking for campaign finance reports on the state level? Good luck to you and hope you have a lot of patience. At the federal level I can look at www.fec.gov for easy access to individual congressional representative’s or senator’s reports and use www.opensecrets.org for aggregate data, who has contributed across campaigns, who donated to pacs, who did pacs donate to, etc. Two stop shopping. On the state level? I have, by and large, given up. Granted I review my state rep’s and state senator’s reports now and then. But reports don’t have to be filed all that often, especially in off years, and trying to do any kind of aggregate searching seems to be impossible.

For example, I tried to see who at Exelon had donated at the state level, by searching the state political contributions database for Exelon as an employer. What I retrieved from that search as an alphabetical list, by the donor’s FIRST name, of people who had contributed, for the screens I reviewed, to Exelon’s PAC. You can ask the data to be listed by recipient but again, it went primarily to the Exelon PAC. You can search for Exelon as a contributor name and see the total of 18 contributions listed for 2007/08 for the Exelon PAC. You can also look at Exelon PAC’s reports, but must look at each report individually. Unless you download the report you have to look at each section manually and the default is set at 10 entries per page so to cut down on the clicking and paging you have to reset the default with each section of each report.

People paid by lobbying firms may muster the time and patience to jump through all these hoops and review everything but for the simple voter trying to get a handle on how much the energy or health care or banking or any other industry spends on campaign contributions or lobbying and on whom that money is spent, it is all but impossible unless you can take several days to do nothing else. Most of us do not have that option.

It may very well be true that no other meaningful changes can be made in Pennsylvania until there is legislative and campaign finance reform. Right now we can’t tell. The only way to be sure is to enact the legislative and campaign finance reforms that would allow us to check.

1 comment:

dani K said...

Tim Potts of Democracy Rising has been looking for spending reports for a LONG time. Check out this interview: http://openrecords.wordpress.com/2008/02/04/interview-sunshine-activist-tim-potts/