Editorial | A solid blow vs. pay to play

In its landmark decision that upholds Philadelphia's campaign-finance limits, Commonwealth Court yesterday said that the city, in effect, had a perfectly legal right to try to clean up its own mess.

That is, the court said Philadelphia was within bounds to take aim at its pay-to-play political culture by setting donor limits in city elections.

The decision makes clear that the Pennsylvania election code did not preclude City Council from enacting separate rules for Philadelphia in 2003 and updating them last year.

The decision, written by Judge Doris A. Smith-Ribner, said "there is no indication" that Harrisburg lawmakers wanted "to preempt the field of campaign finance" in writing state election rules.

The appeals court offered valuable support for the fundamental reason to have campaign limits. The aim of the city's law, wrote Judge Smith-Ribner, "is to change the political culture" by ridding elections of big donations that have "the potential to undermine the integrity of the electoral process." Hear, hear!

For now, then, yearly donor limits of $5,000 per person and $20,000 per political committee remain in place.

That's a major victory in the campaign to rid City Hall of the impact of big-money donations. Given the timing, it makes it more likely that the May 15 Democratic primary will be conducted under the limits - rather than being up-ended by a last-minute influx of large donations.

The victory may prove temporary, of course, since the issue could be appealed to the state Supreme Court. That court, though, will be confronted with a lower-court ruling that makes ample use of the high court's own legal precedents.

The Commonwealth Court decision vindicates a year-long effort by mayoral candidate Michael A. Nutter, who went to court to uphold the campaign-finance bill authored in 2003 by Council members W. Wilson Goode and Blondell Reynolds Brown.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, also a mayoral candidate, challenged the ordinance and won at the Common Pleas Court level in December.

Critics of the campaign limits may grumble that millionaire Tom Knox remains able to out-spend rivals. But there's a risk to his exercising that constitutional right: Voters may view him as trying to buy the election.

The city is better off trying to limit donors. As 1999 mayoral candidate Sam Katz said, "The fact that someone is pouring pollution into the water doesn't mean that trying to clean it up is a bad idea."