Pennsylvania state legislature

In this Feb. 4. 2009 file photo, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives at the State Capitol, is seen in Harrisburg, Pa. 

It’s time for an overhaul to Pennsylvania’s dated campaign finance laws.

That was the message from some top Harrisburg officials this week after The Caucus and Spotlight PA published a yearlong investigation into how lawmakers shielded from public view $3.5 million in sometimes lavish expenses by listing them only as credit card payments or self-reimbursements.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa said Friday he would introduce a comprehensive bill to tackle almost every part of the law. It would implement contribution limits for state and local candidates, ban candidates from using campaign cash for personal use and require more transparency.

Citing media investigation, top Pa. lawmaker pushes limits on campaign donations, stricter disclosure rules

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, the Republican who had the most hidden spending in the years reviewed by reporters, said on Twitter he supports Costa’s goal of improving transparency.

But the proposed solutions are far from new.

Costa has introduced a version of his bill, unsuccessfully, for nearly a decade in a state that hasn’t made comprehensive changes to its election law since it originally passed in 1937.

It’s now one of 10 states that still allow unlimited contributions. It’s one of two that do not explicitly prohibit personal use of campaign money, which is the “best practice,” said Ed Bender, executive director of the National Institute for Money in State Politics.

Look to fed, Philly

And when it comes to transparency — primarily requiring credit card expenses to be itemized rather than lumped together under vague descriptions — it lags behind both the federal government and the city of Philadelphia, which aren’t exactly known for their squeaky-clean politics.

The Federal Election Commission website explicitly states candidates must itemize expenses made by credit card “so that the public knows why the funds were spent.”

In Philadelphia, a Board of Ethics campaign finance law compliance guide similarly imposes clear rules: “If the filer has used a credit or charge card to make expenditures, the filer shall disclose and itemize each purchase made with that card, not merely a lump sum payment to the card.”

Lavish dinners, sports tickets, and nearly $3.5 million other expenses by Pa. lawmakers you’ve never seen

The guidelines were introduced when the city implemented stricter ethics and campaign laws, including contribution limits, in 2006.

“It doesn't always pass the conventional-wisdom test to say Pennsylvania should be looking to Philadelphia, but it is true,” said David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Philadelphia-based good-government group Committee of Seventy.

Thornburgh said he believes the lack of transparency at the state level is a “collateral issue to the fact that we don't have any limits on big donors.”

Others expressed similar sentiments, saying those problems in the law all go hand-in-hand.

Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen in Washington, D.C., was stunned to hear Pennsylvania doesn’t limit contributions or ban personal use of campaign money.

“Wow,” he said. “Then you have to have disclosure of expenditures to regulate that (wide open donor law).”

What can be done?

Fixes suggested by election-law experts and other states include:

— Requiring itemization of expenses, such as those rolled into credit card payments or reimbursements to the candidate. Lawmakers could still use credit cards, but would need to list the charges.

“An obvious way to remove barriers to access is to require specific itemization, and to have those records available on demand from a centralized repository, like the Department of State,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewMedia Association. “It shifts the burden from the requestor to track down information to the candidate to comply with the law.”

— Clearly stating that personal use of campaign expenses is a violation of the law. States need to “spell it out,” said Beth Rotman, director of money politics and ethics for Common Cause, Washington, D.C.

Under federal law, the general rule for politicians is they can’t use campaign money to pay for expenses they’d have incurred without running for or serving in office. The law explicitly mentions purchases including clothing, vacations, school tuition, and recreation and entertainment not associated with the campaign.

Having no ban on personal expenses, “I think, is very bad optics,” said Carrie Levine, deputy federal politics editor at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.

— Tightening the language defining expenses. Connecticut, considered a model state, defines expense in part as those made to “promote the success or defeat of any candidate seeking the nomination for election, or election, of any person.”

— Banning the use of gift card purchases. The Caucus/SpotlightPA investigation found some candidates have added another layer of obscured spending by using credit cards to buy gift cards. The gift cards, some campaigns said, are purchased for any number of reasons including gas and food for volunteers. But those actual expenses never appear on public reports and are almost never documented by receipts by campaign treasurers.

— Beefing up staffing at the Department of State. The agency oversees elections and compliance with campaign finance laws, in addition to several other duties. Its budget is about $10 million in the roughly $32.6 billion state budget.

Costa, in a statement asking for support for his bill in the Senate, said the goal, in part, should be to “protect the integrity and fairness of our electoral process.”

Whether that goal is carried out by the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration — who have both indicated a desire to fix the system  — remains to be seen.

For more from the Caucus/Spotlight PA investigation: