House panel says lobbyist disclosure law should be improved
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A new state House investigative committee’s first report, released Wednesday, said Pennsylvania’s lobbyist disclosure law should be overhauled so that lobbyists, rather than the entities they work for, report meals, gifts and other spending meant to influence government.
The House Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously for the 42-page report that also recommended changes to how lobbyist spending reports are audited.
The chairman, Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, said he hoped lawmakers would take up the recommendations and change a status quo he described as under-reporting and lack of transparency. Lobbyists spend about $116 million a year in the state.
“If the scope of the lobbying disclosure law is to figure out who’s spending money on who, I think the current law fails at both,” Grove said after the vote.
Pete Trufahnestock, president of the lobbying trade group the Pennsylvania Association for Government Relations, declined immediate comment, saying his organization will read and evaluate the report.
The bipartisan committee said identifying and punishing lobbyist registration violations is difficult under the current law, and that it was not able to determine what percentage of principals, lobbying firms and lobbyists are in compliance.
“Changes in the law are needed to enhance its goal of providing the public with an accurate picture of the level of spending to influence decision making by state officials and employees in the legislative and executive branches,” the report said.
Lobbyists rather than principals, the people who lobby on their own behalf or hire or employ lobbyists, should have to report primary expenses, the committee said. That would capture details that sometimes otherwise aren’t made clear to the public.
“Lobbyists frequently entertain public officials and provide gifts or hospitality which are then allocated among each of their clients,” the report said. “Because gifts and hospitality must be reported by principals, rather than their lobbyists who actually provide it to the official, reports do not necessarily reflect the actual level of expenditures on these items.”
It said the ability to allocate to many sources undermines transparency that the lobbyist disclosure law is designed to foster.
It said the current practice of keeping most audit reports confidential should be reversed, arguing that public disclosure of information outweighs most privacy concerns.
The committee also recommended the state do away with the $300 lobbyist registration fee, which covers about half the cost of administering the registration program. They said it was unfair and could be adding to the problem of some principals failing to register.
The Department of State and State Ethics Commission have begun to talk about sharing information about violations found in lobbying report audits as a result of the committee’s investigation, the report said.
“As noted in the report, the department’s interactions with the committee’s staff have already been fruitful,” said Department of State spokeswoman Wanda Murren. “We look forward to exploring what additional changes can be made based on the committee’s findings. We also look forward to continuing our collaboration with stakeholders and users of the registration and reporting system to ensure that the new system not only meets the requirements of the law but also meets the expectations of those who rely on it for reporting and disclosure.”
The review was authorized in May by the Republican and Democratic floor leaders in the House of Representatives, following up on 2018 amendments to the lobbyist disclosure law that were passed to improve registration and reporting compliance.