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Legislators in State Capitol spend $10 million for communications, 'news' broadcasts

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Rep. David Zimmerman introduced a bill that would exempt some small private schools, churches and businesses that have private drinking water wells on their property.

HARRISBURG — At first glance, this small Capitol studio looks like the set of any other TV news show. Think “Meet the Press” or “Face the Nation.”

Serious, well-dressed official types gather around a large oval desk. They check the teleprompters and welcome viewers to a “legislative report” as the dramatic intro music fades. What often follows, though, resembles less a thoughtful debate over the issues and more a carefully scripted message that adheres to a strict partisan ideology.

“This is a special alert,” Republican Rep. Daryl Metcalfe said at the outset of one of his recent “Metcalfe Minute” videos. The conservative lawmaker went on to rail against new gun-control measures in Pittsburgh.

Welcome to the state Capitol, where elected officials and their staffs operate a massive, sophisticated and partisan media machine that costs taxpayers nearly $10 million a year at a time when the number of journalists serving as watchdogs on government is shrinking.

“Elected officials have a legitimate interest in communicating with the public,” said Ethan Porter, a George Washington University assistant professor of political communications.

“Obviously, this legitimate interest can quickly be used to further their political, electoral interests.”

In a building home to one of the largest, most expensive legislatures in the country, there are at least three of these television studios built to produce state-run, news-like programs for state lawmakers.

Staff time, cameras, microphones, green screens and other broadcasting equipment used to keep them running add up to millions in taxpayer costs over the years — just one cog in a taxpayer-funded public relations machine that walks a fine line between official legislative business and campaigning.

The cost of all legislative communications is nearly $10 million a year, on average, according to first-of-its-kind analysis of spending records from 2013 through 2018.

“That’s a pretty significant amount of money for a very defined function,” said Kyle Kopko, a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College. “I could see some taxpayers not being overly thrilled about that.”

With large budgets and about 130 staffers at their disposal, each of the four legislative caucuses essentially operates its own public relations firm.

Pennsylvania taxpayers pick up the tab for videos of legislators touring small businesses and for television-quality shows produced in studios built within the Capitol. They pay for thousands of newsletters and news releases, for telephone town halls, website design and programs that alert staff when legislators are mentioned in the news.

For the legislators and the staff who support them, there’s a simple justification to do as much of this as possible.

“People tell us that they want to be more connected with government, and we’re trying on our end to provide those services,” said Drew Crompton, chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati. “To what degree do they really want to be connected with government? I don’t know. But we think it’s important to send out as much information as someone would view.”

In the studio

There are several broadcast studios in the Capitol.

One is the Capitol Media Center, which is made available to lawmakers, administration officials and advocates. It’s run by Capitol Media Services, with a budget of $4.7 million in the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to documents obtained through a Right-to-Know Law request.

And then there are the studios run by lawmakers themselves.

There’s one for Senate Republicans and Democrats to share, and one each for the House Republicans and Democrats.

What are they broadcasting?

It depends on who’s behind the desks and what time of the year it is. Spring and summer shows might discuss what’s happening with the state budget. Republicans might highlight workforce development efforts. Maybe Democrats put together a segment about raising the minimum wage.

The equipment used to put together these government-run “news” reports makes up some of the largest chunks of the General Assembly’s communications budgets.

Studio technology upgrades were among $512,398 that House Republicans spent on broadcasting equipment in 2012 and 2013. House Democrats spent $240,000 in early 2013 to mostly replace old equipment and buy the latest high-definition cameras. The Senate spent another $570,727 on broadcast equipment in recent years, mostly in early 2015.

“It’s not a sound stage in Hollywood with a staff devoted to it 24 hours a day,” House Republican Caucus spokesman Mike Straub said of its studio, which was responsible for a portion of its video equipment costs.

Crompton described the thought process as a constant cost-benefit analysis where they “wrestle with how big the universe is that’s watching.”

“We keep restrictions on this, but we also understand you can’t use a Polaroid to take pictures anymore,” Crompton said.

In the field

Outside the studio, lawmakers spend millions on equipment and staff to film events and other news-like “reports” within their districts.

Personnel is the largest expense. Staffers are designated as videographers and photographers, broadcast specialists and graphic artists. Senate Democrats employ a social media director; House Democrats have a director of digital media and analytics.

Most staffers are considered communications specialists, handling the majority of work on websites, social media, newsletters and news releases. Some go into the field to cover in-district events, racking up thousands of dollars in travel, lodging and meal expenses.

House Democrats and Republicans even rent their own vans to haul equipment and communications staffers to events at a cost of $544 per month each.

Videos of committee hearings and senior expos show up on legislative websites and social media accounts. But so do video montages of lawmakers wearing hardhats in factories or sitting down with veterans, interviewing kids at the Farm Show or making pastries in a local bakery — similar to campaign commercials that flood the airwaves every election season.

Some legislative communications might be “political advertising masquerading” as public interest, said Porter, the political communications professor. But “so much depends on the specifics of the content.”

“There’s a fine line between revving up constituents to support specific policies that elected officials propose and electioneering communications,” said Kopko, of Elizabethtown College.

It’s also a natural incumbency advantage, building name recognition for the legislator and thus indirectly providing “an electoral effect,” even if it isn’t intended that way, Kopko said.

To reach the masses, the lawmakers use newsletters and telephone town halls — which cost about $1 million and $275,000, respectively, on average each year.

But they also use their own websites — which cost Senate Republicans about $250,000 to overhaul in recent years — and cable television. Senate Democrats pay $35,000 per year to reserve one hour of air time on a Comcast cable access channel every week. In Lancaster County, you can catch “Capitol Connection” — featuring clips from news conferences, events and hearings held by the Democratic caucus — on channel 180 at 8 p.m. Sundays.

Brittany Crampsie, a press secretary for the Senate Democratic Caucus, said the air time is used to “communicate legislative updates, PSA information, what’s happening in the district and decisions being made in Harrisburg.”

Changing media landscape

In the days before website subscriptions and digital newspaper replicas, staffers in the House Democrats’ communications office would see their hands turn black, covered in inky newspaper print as they browsed all the hard-copy papers.

The daily routine included clipping out the state stories, photocopying them onto different pages and distributing the pages to the members, said Bill Patton, who started with the House Democratic Caucus communications office in 1989.

Now, news consumption has completely transformed, and the news industry along with it.

According to a recent report, news organizations have already lost 3,000 jobs in 2019, their worst year since nearly 8,000 were laid off in the first five months of 2009. Public relations has filled the void. There were 6.4 public relations specialists for every one reporter in 2018, up from a roughly 2-to-1 ratio 20 years earlier, according to a Bloomberg report on U.S. Census data.

Spokespeople in the Capitol say their public relations changes reflect this reality. The number of reporters covering state government has dwindled — both from within Harrisburg and across the state.

“The media landscape continues to change,” said Straub, who was a television reporter covering the Capitol for WGAL until earlier this year. “So, members are doing more to reach out and keep their constituents informed of what is happening in Harrisburg and how it impacts their districts.”

Patton said the changes have been part of the reason for their increase in staffing. “It may be up to us to get that message out,” he said.