Lobbyists' cozy relationship with Pa. pols often trumps public good

Internet Gambling NJ
Lobbying firms on opposite sides on expanding gambling in Pennsylvania have stalled a budget agreement.

One of the more twisted reasons why Pennsylvania can’t fund its state budget is that the Republican majority is swaying to and fro under the influence of two lobbying firms.

The lobbyists not only shower legislators with campaign money to gain favor, but they have upped the game by also running the lawmakers’ election campaigns. They have made themselves essential to the legislators’ political careers. In a sense, they have become political machines that decide who wins and who loses.

Lobbyists Todd Nyquist and Michael Long are Senate specialists and have helped run campaigns for 11 of the upper chamber’s 34 Republican members. Ray Zaborney specializes in the House, where 57 of its 121 Republican representatives have been his clients.

When the campaigns are over, the lobbyists have leverage to ask politicians to favor a bevy of their other clients with business before the legislature. And they get heard.

“If you have somebody that’s helping a candidate get elected, then when they do come around to lobby that candidate, they’re going to have more access and influence than other people who are active on the same issue,” says Adav Noti of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan election reform group.

Is it any wonder that public interest ends up in the back seat? That’s happening now, as Republicans in the Senate and House battle each other over how to fund the state budget.

Among the options is a proposal to allow bars, truck stops, and other businesses to house up to 40,000 video gaming terminals (VGTs). Staff writers Angela Couloumbis and Liz Navratil reported that the two lobbying firms are on opposite sides of the issue. Zaborney represents clients who want VGTs in places other than casinos, while Nyquist and Long represent casinos that are against the gaming machines.

The lobbyists don’t seem concerned about the dire budget stalemate. Gov. Wolf says the state won’t be able to pay some of its bills starting Friday. That would cost the state a credit downgrade, making it more expensive for it to borrow money, which is a waste of funds taxpayers can ill afford.

It is a disgrace that legislators are placing private corporate interests above the public good, but they have made clear who’s the boss.

Equally troubling, it is unclear just how much money the firms spend on wooing legislators, because Pennsylvania’s toothless lobbying law doesn’t require full disclosure.

State Rep. Brandon Neuman (D., Washington) wants to weaken lobbyists’ grip on legislators by forcing them to choose between running campaigns or lobbying for private clients. That’s reasonable.

But legislators who don’t mind looking like busboys for lobbyists are keeping Neuman’s bill from being heard.

It’s time for House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) to order hearings for the bills, if they care at all about good government.