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New lobbying law needn't take until summer to craft

December 30, 2003

Stating that it alone had the power to regulate attorneys, last summer the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned a 1998 bill to regulate lobbyists.

Now, faced with a system that's totally unregulated, the court has wisely decided to order lawyers to comply with whatever regulations the General Assembly passes. Given all the time it took to pass a school-funding bill, it may be optimistic, but we'd like to see a lobbying oversight bill passed before summer.

That's the timetable envisioned by Barry Kauffman, head of Common Cause Pennsylvania, who told The Associated Press that the court saw its error and was moving to correct it.

But whenever an old law is tossed out and a new one crafted to replace it, it often reopens a debate on the merits of every major provision of the law.

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For example, AP reports that some lobbyists don't want to disclose more than a limited amount about their finances, while others degree on how a lobbying office's overhead should be allocated among various clients.

Complicating the matter is the fact that in January, the Pennsylvania Senate passed its own set of rules and a bill now before the House's State Government Committee would do the same.

The first question seems obvious: How well have the Senate rules worked? If they've done the job, the House could adopt them and get on to other serious business facing lawmakers.

If there have been problems with the Senate bill, we recommend a look at what other states have done. It's hard to believe some other state's government hasn't figured out how to to do this thing correctly.

Things we feel should be part of any bill include:

- Clear identification of clients, discouraging creation of committees with high-sounding names like "Pennsylvanians for Democracy" that are actually seeking tax breaks for pipe fitters, or something similar.

- Timely posting of all information on the Internet. It should not be necessary for citizens to go to the county courthouse to find out who's paying to influence government officials' behavior.

There are many good organizations out there advocating on behalf of good causes. No doubt reporting will be somewhat of a burden on them. It's a burden we hope they'll bear willingly, as a necessary part of of maintaining openness in government.

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