Can Corporate Cash Buy Clout in Pennsylvania Politics? 

Every state has specific campaign finance laws for state-elected officials. In PA, the sky’s the limit.
democracy for sale
Activists rally at the White House, demanding democracy reforms. Photo courtesy of Public Citizen.

You’ve heard the phrase “follow the money.” It’s an expression that’s especially appropriate when coupled with investigations that delve into the world of politics. Why would anyone be interested in these financial revelations? Because people, associations, corporations, political action committees (PACs), lobbyists and charities don’t hand out money simply because they can. They hand out money because they support a candidate’s position in which they have a mutual interest or they hope to gain support for their own position. 

Tracking political campaign money is a bit like completing a jigsaw puzzle, with each piece providing a slightly larger glimpse of the full picture. Unfortunately, once all the puzzle pieces come together, the picture does not necessarily provide the clarity one would hope, thanks, in large part, to the Supreme Court’s passage of “Citizens United” in 2010. 

In the event you’re unfamiliar with the case, here’s a quick and simplified recap: the Supreme Court’s decision created “corporate personhood” protected by the First Amendment, of all things. In other words, under the guise of “free speech,” the Court gave corporations and other organizations permission to spend gobs of money to elect their favorite politicians. 

The “Citizens United” ruling over­turned elec­tion spend­ing restric­tions dating back more than 100 years and ushered in the creation of Super PACs that have the ability to (a) contribute unlimited funds to political activities and communications but not to candidates or parties, and (b) largely shield the sources of the money. The way in which money may now be funneled into political endeavors has turned researching campaign finance into something more akin to a cloak and dagger mystery. 

If you haven’t noticed, government seems to work very well for the rich because, for the last 12 years, wealthy corporations and individuals have capitalized upon their ability to influence the outcome of elections. 

Every state has specific campaign finance laws for state-elected officials.  In Pennsylvania, the sky’s the limit. Individuals and political parties along with PACs may give as much money as they want to any candidate running for state office. Pennsylvania does prohibit political funding from corporations and unions, however there’s a loophole:

“Direct corporate and/or union contributions are prohibited and/or use of treasury funds and/or dues is prohibited. In these states, the law specifically says that nothing prevents the employees or officers of a corporation from making political contributions through a PAC, using funds from an account that is separate and segregated from corporate accounts. Such contributions are subject to the same limitations placed on other PACs.”  

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The Federal Election Commission (FEC) does set limits for contributions to congressional and presidential candidates as well as to party committees.
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Political news junkies are rather adept at tracking money but for those who aren’t, let’s explore what you can – and cannot – easily find out about the sources of money for candidates and incumbents running for office.

 Campaign finance reports are public records that anyone may see. The PA Department of State (DOS) website provides easily accessible records for state-based candidates and financial contributors. To see candidates running for local office (school board director, township supervisor, borough council member, mayor, etc.) you must rely on county filings – some of which are not online – but this information is still available from the counties. Local filings that are not posted on the internet will necessitate a trip to that county’s Board of Elections (BOE) office.

There are two primary ways to search these records: by candidate and/or by financial donor. You can learn a lot about a candidate based upon the source of their campaign contributions.

For instance, the Pennsylvania Republican controlled legislature passed Act 12 in 2016 that allows local municipalities to sell their public water and sewer systems to private companies. Over the last six years, several local Pennsylvania towns, boroughs and suburbs have sold their water related public utilities to Aqua America, with many more sales potentially on the horizon.

In theory, it is very tempting for any local municipality to contemplate selling their public utility to instantly access millions of dollars needed for local improvements without property owners footing the bill via a tax increase.  

Reality, however, tells a different story. After the passage of Act 12, and following the sale of Limerick Township’s water utility, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote:

“But Pennsylvania’s Office of Consumer Advocate estimates that Limerick’s 5,400 customers will pay dearly for the acquisition, and are facing an 84 percent bill increase, to $70 a month, after a rate freeze is lifted in 2020” and,

“Act 12 allows investor-owned utilities to charge ratepayers for the appraised fair-market value of an acquired system, rather than its lower depreciated cost.”

Recently, another Philadelphia Inquirer article reported on the potential sale of Bucks County’s public water system:

“Bucks County officials are evaluating an offer of about $600 million from Aqua Pennsylvania (AKA: Aqua America) to buy the county’s sprawling water and wastewater utility, a potentially huge privatization that could fill the county’s treasury, but impact water and sewer rates for customers far beyond Bucks County.” 

“The Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority (BCWSA) said Wednesday that they are methodically evaluating potential options for the public system, which serves about 100,000 households in Bucks, Montgomery, and Chester Counties.“

This scenario now begs the question: to whom has Aqua America made campaign contributions? A visit to the DOS website allows you to easily search Aqua America’s PAC. In 2021 – the last year of fully filed campaign finance reports – the private utility company gave a lot of donations to a lot of Pennsylvania public officials but two of the largest donations from Aqua America went to two Republicans in the area.

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Transparency USA, a non-governmental website, tracks Pennsylvania finances where you may cross check what you’ve researched on the PA DOS database.

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To research candidates running for federal office you must visit the Federal Election Commission’s website. The FEC website is an amazing compilation of information that covers decades of data. You may search all members of Congress – past and present – and also do deep dives into the assortment of PACs, Super PACs and committees set up to accept funds on behalf of candidates. If you take a look at PA01’s Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick you can see that he fundraises under no fewer than four different committees.

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For additional insight, you may want to visit Open Secrets, a website that is quite helpful in seeing how monies to the various committees are disbursed to both individuals and PACs. 

Recent beneficiaries of Take Back the House 2022 include distributions to Brian Fitzpatrick (+$187,605) and Kevin McCarthy (+$3,185,532).  Indeed, Open Secrets spills the tea when it comes to tracking information regarding who’s who, what’s what and the company people keep. 

As we have so frequently been reminded to “watch what they do – not what they say,” the tracking of financial campaign contributions is enlightening. Viewing sources of money is yet another way to properly vet candidates so you may elect officials who truly represent your interests.  Once you evaluate these candidates for yourself, consider sharing the information with your friends and neighbors so they are able to make informed choices at the polls.

Another way to make sure you’re properly represented is to vote in every election.  To register to vote or to check your voter registration in Pennsylvania, head on over to the PA Department of State website.

If you’re a registered Democrat or Republican, you have an upcoming opportunity to exercise your right to vote in Pennsylvania’s May 17 Primary Election. Now, more than ever, it’s important to vote and protect our democracy.

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Picture of Jenny Stephens

Jenny Stephens

Jenny Stephens is a freelance journalist who has written for a variety of publications, including The Reporter. An avid collector of all things vintage, she resides in the Philadelphia area.

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