Capitol

A view of the Pennsylvania Capitol building from State Street.

THE ISSUE

The Pennsylvania General Assembly, with 253 members, is one of the largest and most expensive legislatures in the United States. And it spends nearly $10 million a year, on average, on legislative communications, according to first-of-its-kind analysis of spending records from 2013 through 2018 conducted by Sam Janesch, a staff writer for The Caucus, an LNP Media Group watchdog publication that covers state government. With large budgets and a combined 130 staffers at their disposal, each of the four legislative caucuses — the Senate and House Republicans and the Senate and House Democrats — essentially operates its own public relations firm, Janesch noted in The Caucus. (An abridged version of his article was published in Monday’s LNP.)

Communication between lawmakers and their constituents is essential.

But who is the audience for videos of legislators touring factories in hard hats, for what Janesch describes as “television-quality shows produced in studios built within the Capitol”?

Have you watched any of these videos lately? No one we know has except for journalists, and only to assess the videos’ news value, which is generally minimal.

So what is the point of the videos, beyond making lawmakers look good?

“People tell us that they want to be more connected with government, and we’re trying on our end to provide those services,” Drew Crompton, chief of staff to Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, told Janesch. “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.”

So, even those involved in producing these videos don’t know if constituents are watching them. And yet a broadcast studio run by Capitol Media Services is available to lawmakers, administration officials and advocates. Its budget: $4.7 million in the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to documents obtained through a Right-to-Know Law request, Janesch reported.

Three additional studios are run by lawmakers themselves: one is shared by Senate Republicans and Democrats; the House Republicans and Democrats each have their own.

Maintaining those studios — appointed with green screen technology and state-of-the-art cameras — isn’t cheap.

“Studio technology upgrades were among $512,398 that House Republicans spent on broadcasting equipment in 2012 and 2013,” Janesch reported. “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.”

This is not chump change. And, by the way, it’s taxpayer money.

But wait, as the TV ads say, there’s more.

The Senate Democrats pay $35,000 a year for air time on a Comcast cable access channel for an hourlong show that offers clips from news conferences and hearings held by the Democratic Caucus. “Capitol Connection” airs in most markets on Sunday nights (lending new meaning to the Sunday night blues).

Senate Democrats also spent an average of $28,644 per year from 2013 through 2018 on travel, lodging, meals and other expenses to cover in-district events starring their members. Their Republican counterparts, Janesch reported, spent $18,604 per year.

The caucuses don’t have set limits on the number of events a legislator can have covered by their taxpayer-funded media operations. (Why should they? It’s not their money.)

And their spokespeople told Janesch that expenses generally are approved as long as the events are for “a purely legislative purpose.”

But as Kyle Kopko, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College, told Janesch, “There’s a fine line between revving up constituents to support specific policies ... and electioneering communications.”

Even events deemed “purely legislative” bolster the name recognition of lawmakers and thus have “an electoral effect,” Kopko noted.

Coverage of state government has declined as news organizations have trimmed staff and expenditures (LNP Media Group’s 2017 launch of The Caucus departed from that trend). This undoubtedly suits elected officials who would rather transmit information, spun in their favor, directly to constituents.

But information that's not vetted by journalists can be more akin to propaganda than news.

And we don’t think taxpayers signed up to pay $10 million a year for a massive, partisan, state-run media machine.

The largest expense is, of course, the personnel required to manage lawmakers’ websites and social media accounts, accompany them to public events and plan those events. Staffers also produce lawmakers’ e-newsletters, which, as Janesch found, just happen to be more frequently disseminated during election years (a coincidence, we’re sure).

As Janesch reported, 51 communications staffers work for House Republicans; 42 for House Democrats; 19 for Senate Republicans; and 18 for Senate Democrats. The top-ranking staffers draw annual salaries ranging from $90,000 to $136,950.

Surprise! Our bloated Legislature has given rise to a bloated flacking operation. It appears that some lawmakers may be spending more time promoting their proposals than actually passing them.

Here’s another worrying element of all this: Technology doesn’t always bring lawmakers closer to their constituents. It actually may serve to keep them at a distance.

The House GOP spent a whopping $800,000 on telephone town halls from 2013 through 2018; their Democratic counterparts spent $96,000. Senate Republicans and Democrats spend about $125,000 per year on telephone town halls.

These town halls are increasingly popular with lawmakers, not least because they’re easy. Questions can be screened. The audience is at a safe remove.

We think they’re a cop-out.

More broadly, we worry about the millions of taxpayer dollars being spent on a public relations machine that too easily can veer from legitimate communications into partisan electioneering.

Keeping constituents informed is one thing. Seeking to keep lawmakers in office by promoting them on the taxpayer dime is quite another.