by Victor Skinner
A Pennsylvania government watchdog group is highlighting how the incestuous relationship between local government entities and lobbyists is costing taxpayers millions of dollars. The Commonwealth Foundation also is supporting legislation designed to put an end to the practice.
The Commonwealth Foundation issued a report Monday that reveals Pennsylvania taxpayers paid at least $42 million in lobbying expenses between 2007 and 2020 to advocate for more government spending, though the actual cost is likely substantially more.
The foundation sent public information requests to 1,518 government entities to collect data on taxpayer-funded lobbying, which involves boroughs, cities, counties, school districts and state agencies that hire lobbyists or pay dues to associations to lobby other areas of government.
Only 40% of those requests received a response, and the figures do not include federal lobbying expenses of about $3 million between 2017 and 2020.
“Taxpayers should be outraged that their money is being used against them,” said Nathan Benefield, the foundation’s senior vice president. “Taxpayer-funded lobbying is a vicious cycle that harms everyone – except the lobbying industry and the bureaucracy.”
Records show 619 local governments spent $24.1 million on lobbying associations between 2017 and 2020, while 26 government entities spent $18 million on contract lobbyists between 2007 and 2020. The totals were collected through both the public information requests and the Pennsylvania Department of State’s online lobbying database.
The biggest spenders include the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority with more than $3.8 million spent between 2015 and 2021, followed by Bucks County with $2.7 million spent between 2017 and 2020. Records show Greene County spent $2.1 million between 2007 and 2020, while the Allegheny County Airport spent more than $2 million since 2009.
The city of Philadelphia spent more than $1.9 million since 2008, while Allegheny County spent more than $1.5 million since 2017. Two school districts are also in the list of top-ten spenders – Hempfield Area School District with more than $1.2 million since 2017, and the Pine-Richland School District, which spent over $1 million during the same time frame.
Others include Dauphin County with more than $1 million since 2008, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission with $961,350 between 2007 and 2010, Delaware County with $939,880 since 2013, and the Philadelphia Port Authority, which spent $897,764 between 2007 and 2017.
“A key part is … this just grows the size and cost of government every year no matter what,” foundation spokesman John Bouder said. “Without transparency and accountability, this practice is going to continue indefinitely and become more burdensome for taxpayers.”
Bouder said research also revealed issues with data provided to the state and spending totals collected by the Commonwealth Foundation.
“We pointed out some discrepancies between the data we found and what’s on the state’s website,” he said. “There’s no one verifying the data, no accountability mechanism.
“It’s kind of a free-for-all,” he said.
The foundation highlighted legislation currently pending in the General Assembly that would put a stop to the spending, including House Bill 1607, sponsored by Lebanon Republican Rep. Russ Diamond, and Senate Bill 802, sponsored by Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-Jacobus.
HB 1607 would prohibit any commonwealth entity from hiring outside lobbyists or consultants to influence the legislature, executive branch, or judiciary. SB 802 also would prohibit local government and state agencies from hiring lobbyists to influence the decision-making process of other government entities.
“Now is the perfect time for a comprehensive bill to ban taxpayer-funded lobbying in Pennsylvania,” Benefield said. “Taxpayer-funded lobbying is a clear conflict of interest that flies in the face of transparency and ethics.”
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Victor Skinner contributes to The Center Square.