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Lawmakers want to ban public agencies from hiring lobbyists

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(The Center Square) — The Pennsylvania Game Commission garnered condemnations statewide for hiring a lobbyist — something no state agency had done for the better part of two decades.

Now, though commission announced it will no longer use a lobbyist, legislators want to ban the practice statewide.

On Monday, Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-Jacobus, introduced a bill to ban all state agencies from hiring lobbyists or consultants “to influence the decision-making process of another Commonwealth entity or agency.”

Joining Phillips-Hill in sponsoring Senate Bill 1098 are Republican Sens. Jarrett Coleman (Allentown) and Judy Ward (Hollidaysburg) and Democratic Sen. Lindsey Williams (Pittsburgh).

“The money that goes toward paying these lobbying organizations is hard-working taxpayer dollars, or in this case, fees paid by our sportsmen to hunt,” Phillips-Hill said in a legislative memo. “That money should be spent on public services to help all of our residents, not on continuing to pad (the) pockets of lobbyists.”

The bill prohibits executive departments or agencies, the General Assembly, and local departments or agencies of political subdivisions from hiring lobbyists or spending money to lobby on behalf of the commonwealth entity.

Such a ban would preclude public entities — from boroughs and townships to counties and state agencies — from using a lobbying firm to plead their case for more funding.

“I’ll be honest with you: I’ve yet to find anybody who thinks it’s a good idea to spend taxpayer dollars on lobbying services,” Phillips-Hill said.

In February, news broke that the commission hired a Pittsburgh-based firm to lobby the General Assembly on behalf of the PGC at $10,000 per month. During budget hearings, Senators were very displeased with the decision.

No state agency had hired a lobbyist since 2007, Phillips-Hill noted, while Sen. Cris Dush, R-Brookville, questioned the effectiveness and propriety of hiring Allegheny Strategy Partners, run by Joe Scarnati, a former Republican leader in the Pennsylvania Senate.

Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans argued the lobbyist helped the agency “build capacity” to make up for personnel shortages. In March, the PGC announced it would cut ties and end its lobbyist use.

Phillips-Hill called her bill a common-sense government reform.

“What message does it send that (the commission) can afford a lobbyist to the tune of $120,000 a year, and yet they want the ability to raise license fees — and they’re sitting on a massive fund balance?” she asked. “It doesn’t sit real well with hunters or taxpayers in southern York County.”

State agencies already have legislative liaisons to work with the General Assembly on issues of concern, in addition to executive directors and secretaries that make their case to the Senate and House appropriations committees during budget season.

The commision’s liaison earns a $105,000 salary.

“It seems like a redundant expense if you already have a person in that capacity,” Phillips-Hill said.

Good-government rules like this, she argued, have bipartisan support.

“This is a place where I’ve been able to find people to work across the aisle,” Phillips-Hill said.

That reformist spirit extends beyond a lobbying ban, from limiting the revolving door between government positions and lobbyist hiring to making legislative expenses public.

“I’m a cosponsor of Sen. Lindsey Williams’ legislation that would … require each state Senator to post their expenses online … and extend it to the entire General Assembly,” Phillips-Hill said, referring to Senate Bill 275. “I think it’s ridiculous that a constituent has to file a right-to-know request to know what I spend.”

Those bills, among others, are “going to clean up the way Harrisburg operates,” she said.

“The status quo remains the status quo,” Phillips-Hill said. “That’s why it’s important that the legislature exercises its oversight responsibilities.”