IOM followed up on our call for Harrisburg lawmakers to disclose the contributions they receive related to the gas industry while debating the gas tax. The results are in today's DN editorial, below. You can follow the progress of this project -- who we've asked, what they've answered, and what the disclosed -- at a pretty website we've set up: go/philly.com/gastax.
As of this writing, there are five lawmakers in Harrisburg who we know for sure respect the public's right to know about campaign-finance contributions. They include several key members of the legislative leadership, including Sen. Jake Corman (chairman of the Appropriations Committee) and Rep. Sam Smith (House minority leader). We're hoping more will join them.
We know for sure three won't.
Last week, we called on Harrisburg lawmakers to voluntarily disclose, in real time, the donations they receive through Oct. 1 from donors seeking to influence the debate on a new gas extraction tax. The Legislature has given itself a self-imposed deadline of that date to sort out the details of the tax - how much it will be, whether there will be any exemptions and what regulations will accompany the tax. But because of the way the state's campaign-finance laws are written, legislators will likely cast their votes on the matter before having to disclose the donations they receive from those with interests in the issue.
Make no mistake, there will be donations. According to a report from the reform group Common Cause, natural- gas companies and drillers gave nearly $200,000 during a four-month period last year when lawmakers were considering a similar tax. (It failed.)
We think lawmakers should hold themselves to a higher standard than what the state's lax laws require. So we've launched a Web site (go.philly.com/gastax) where lawmakers can report donations as soon as they're received. They can simply e-mail information about contributions to us (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Common Cause (email@example.com), and we'll post them online.
After putting out our call last week, we asked the top 10 recipients of contributions from the gas industry over the past 10 years (as identified by Common Cause) if they would cooperate. Three said yes, three said no, and four didn't respond to multiple calls (check out go.philly.com/gastax for a list).
We also heard independently from two other representatives, Babette Josephs and Tony Payton Jr., who said they would participate. (Want to encourage your legislator to participate? Again, go.philly.com/gastax.)
None of this should be necessary. The reason citizens can't just see contributions in real time on the state's Web site is that Pennsylvania's campaign-finance laws are outdated. With today's technology, it should be possible for elected officials to report political contributions within hours of receiving the check. Many states, like Oregon and Michigan, are already using the Internet to increase the frequency and transparency of reports on campaign donations.
Pennsylvania needs to fix this. But in the short term, lawmakers should show citizens that they take campaign finance disclosure seriously.