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It's time for Pennsy lawmakers to end those taxpayer-paid ads

January 09, 2003

Should state lawmakers spend taxpayers' money to advertise their services? Pennsylvania state Rep. Gregory Vitali says no, but without public support, he faces an uphill battle.

Compared to the size of the state's overall budget, the $1.7 million spent by 70 lawmakers of both parties last summer isn't much. But Vitali, a Delaware County Democrat, says his objection isn't just about the money.

The TV ads also allow incumbents in contested races to build positive name recognition during contested political races. For example, one constituent of Rep. John Fichter appeared in an ad to praise the Montgomery County Republican for helping him get a copy of his birth certificate.

Some defend the practice by saying that it is more economical than other forms of outreach. Spokespersons for the majority and minority leaders have defended the practice, saying that the ads are no more than televised newsletters that are more cost-effective and reach a larger audience.

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True, no doubt, but such comments ignore the nature of television. Someone who receives a newsletter can choose to read it, discard it or put it away for future inspection. If the newsletter is a campaign puff piece, it's immediately apparent.

By contrast, TV requires little or no effort to watch and through repetition ads can create a positive impression of the "product," in this case an elected official, in a way that a newsletter cannot.

But given that 70 members of the House - 60 Republicans and 10 Democrats - took advantage of the program last summer, we doubt Vitali will win an outright ban. Perhaps something more limited might win approval.

Lawmakers should be able to agree that taxpayers shouldn't be funding ads that promote the incumbents or the services they provide during election years. If these ads are so cost-effective, let the incumbents' campaigns fund them, with the funding source clearly identified. Incumbents are still likely to have a fund-raising advantage, but at least in that way the funds would come from people who actually wanted to contribute.

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