Pa. House sets sights on city's campaign law

Posted: July 06, 2007

In what critics deemed a setback for ethics reform, state House lawmakers quietly gave a nod Tuesday to a measure that would make it harder to monitor how much candidates in Philadelphia raise and spend, while also eliminating the online reports that currently disclose such details.

The action, which had drawn little attention until yesterday, elicited sharp rebukes from the city's likely next mayor, good-government proponents, and at least one state lawmaker who said he already regretted his vote.

Pushed by two Philadelphia Democratic state representatives, Rosita Youngblood and John P. Sabatina Jr., the bill would prohibit the city from requiring candidates and political action committees to file electronic versions of their spending reports with the city's Board of Ethics - something that has been required since last year.

Previously, only paper copies of reports had to be filed with the Philadelphia County Board of Elections.

But with the electronic versions more easily searchable, the Board of Ethics has vigorously pursued late filers and worked to ensure that candidates adhered to the city's new campaign-spending limits. As a result, the board issued thousands of dollars in fines, took some candidates to court, and took other punitive actions as well.

In addition, the board - up and running since the winter - also met its mandate to create the city's first online database that allows the public to search for spending information by candidate, political committee, or contributor.

Given the more stringent oversight, some critics wondered about the motives of the bill's backers, whose action, they say, would essentially gut the city law.

"I don't really understand what the point is," said Michael Nutter, a former city councilman who won the Democratic Party's nomination for mayor and is presumed to be Philadelphia's next mayor. "I know the General Assembly has publicly stated that this is an era of reform for the state, that they are operating with openness and transparency . . . so to prevent disclosure just doesn't make any sense."

Sabatina was quick to acknowledge the friction, saying: "I knew this was going to ruffle some feathers. I was just waiting for the shoe to drop."

That happened as word of the bill, which passed the House, 200-1, after only brief debate Tuesday, finally spread yesterday.

The bill "would make campaign-finance filings less transparent and less efficient," said Ellen Kaplan, vice president of the election watchdog Committee of Seventy.

"It's such a step backward," Ethics Board chairman Richard Glazer said. "Maybe there is some reason beyond the obvious conclusion that someone negatively impacted by this wants to do away with it."

If there was, he said, he didn't know about it.

In interviews, both Sabatina and Youngblood said they were responding to complaints from campaign treasurers - particularly those of Philadelphia ward committees - about the time it took to file the electronic reports and the complications that went with it.

"I heard a bunch of ward leaders complaining that some of their treasurers are elderly and are not computer savvy," said Sabatina, whose father leads the 56th Ward. Some treasurers are also volunteers who had to take time off work to manually input the data, he said.

Youngblood, leader of the 13th Ward, echoed Sabatina's concerns and also contended that since state election code does not require electronic filings, neither can the city. She does not oppose transparency via electronic filings, but, she said, any effort to computerize the campaign-finance reports should stem from the Board of Elections, not the ethics board.

Both lawmakers were also adamant in saying there was no need to file with two city entities instead of one.

The measure has not yet been scheduled for a vote in the Senate.

Though he voted for the legislation, State Rep. Greg Vitali said in an interview that he was "a little peeved" and felt he was "intentionally given incomplete information" about the effect of the bill.

"It was not made clear to any member of this chamber that by voting for this we were eliminating an aspect of campaign-finance reform," Vitali said. He added that he yesterday e-mailed every senator "alerting them to the situation."

Said Nutter: "If there are things we can do to remove any confusion and make filing simpler, I am more than willing to talk with the state legislature about that."


The Text

The General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania hereby enacts as follows:

Section 1. The act of April 21, 1949 known as the First Class City Home Rule Act, is amended by adding a section to read:

Section 18.1. Campaign REPORTS - No city of the first class shall require a candidate for election to public office, treasurer of a political committee or other person, who is required to file reports with the Secretary of the Commonwealth or the County Board of Elections . . . to file copies of such reports with any other office of a county or city of the first class.


Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.

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