The race for governor is again illustrating everything that’s wrong with Pennsylvania’s system of paying for election campaigns. Pennsylvania is one of 11 states without limits on cash contributions from individuals or political action committees. The more you have, the more you can give.
Take Kim Pegula, who’s listed in state campaign finance records as a homemaker from Boca Raton, Fla. In a two-month span late last year, Pegula donated $180,000 to Republican candidate Tom Corbett. And if she wanted to give Corbett even more this year, state law allows it. If Pegula donates to a candidate for Congress, however, federal law limits her to a maximum contribution of $2,400.
What would motivate a homemaker from Florida to donate so much to a gubernatorial candidate in a state 1,100 miles away? Well, Pegula’s husband Terry is CEO of East Resources Inc., the third largest driller for natural gas in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region. The firm has leased about 900,000 acres.
Corbett opposes a production tax on natural-gas drillers, a sensible proposal favored by Gov. Rendell and many Democrats in the legislature. It’s a likely reason the Republican front-runner’s campaign has received at least $380,000 from donors connected with the energy industry.
Rendell chided gas-industry leaders at a conference last week for giving him the brush-off over taxes and for donating heavily to the GOP. He said the industry’s one-sided campaign contributions have further antagonized Democratic legislators, who are pushing for a moratorium on leasing additional state forest lands.
But gas drillers are simply playing the game that Harrisburg welcomes with open palms. Nobody knows that better than Rendell, a record-setting fund-raiser who amassed his own share of six-figure donations from fat cats.
Money so dominates Pennsylvania politics that Rendell joked to the drilling conferees that he’s available for hire as a lobbyist come January. Some people in the audience liked the idea. And why wouldn’t they? In Harrisburg, the guy with the most juice usually wins.
The natural-gas industry has cast its lot with Republicans, but don’t shed any tears for the Democrats. They, too, are raking in obscenely large donations permitted by the lack of a collective conscience in the state capitol.
Gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato, the Allegheny County executive, accepted $50,000 in donations from Pittsburgh shopping-center magnate Ira Gumberg. He also received $100,000 contributions from philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, billionaire investor Ron Burkle of Los Angeles, and Thomas and Gail Buckner of Pittsburgh, who operates a company that sells equipment for police.
Onorato’s donor list also is chock full of five-figure contributions from labor unions. Democrat Jack Wagner received a $50,000 donation from businessman John Middleton of Bryn Mawr, a former cigar manufacturer and part owner of the Phillies.
Bills pending in the House and Senate would set needed donor limits in Pennsylvania. Until this reform is enacted, big money will continue to drive policy in Harrisburg.