PennFuture: Harrisburg's Lobbying Launderers

JULY 9, 2010 | Commentary by PAUL CHESSER

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How do you spend vast amounts of time and energy, but no money, getting your volunteers to advocate for legislation you favor? The environmental group PennFuture, a.k.a. Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, has apparently found a way. 

Its cost-free feats are amazing.  According to its website, PennFuture claims to have secured stronger pollution rules in state agencies; convinced legislators to pass several laws; won $80 million in utility rate cases; and convinced Gov. Ed Rendell and the general public to support a bond issue for environmental funding.

Yet for all these accomplishments - most of which it attributes to the help of its faithful supporters - PennFuture reported spending zero dollars on grassroots lobbying between 2004 through 2007.  It reported a paltry $4,257 in expenditures for such activism in 2008, the last year for which tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) are available. Nonprofits like PennFuture are only permitted to engage in a limited amount of lobbying, or else they may lose their tax-exempt status under federal law.

Is this believable? Consider also that PennFuture has taken credit for:

  • Passage of the $625 million Growing Greener Bond in 2005;
  • Enactment of the state's Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard mandates; and
  • Enactment of state rules to cut mercury pollution and ease the purchase of "clean" cars. 

Add to these successes frequent campaigns to contact legislators about specific legislation, hosting "Lobbying Days" in the Capitol, and providing pre-written letters for its grassroots activists to send to lawmakers. PennFuture clearly is much more than the simple "educational foundation" it tells the IRS it is.

Beyond PennFuture's seeming deceit also lies hypocrisy. Hardly a day goes by without the group insinuating - or outright accusing - natural gas companies of buying influence in Harrisburg through lobbying and campaign contributions. The Devil himself would be hard-pressed to do a better job of demonizing the industry. 

Meanwhile, PennFuture has received more than $900,000 from alternative energy companies during the past five years, much of which the eco-activist group has used to lobby for tax breaks, subsidies and mandates for the wind and solar industries. So as natural gas businesses report their General Assembly activities as transparency laws require, much of the taxpayer-subsidized alternative energy lobbying is hidden behind PennFuture's protective nonprofit skirt.  Sound like lobbying laundering?

And while PennFuture would like residents to believe environmental causes are severely underrepresented and outspent in the state Capitol, the truth is they-one of many likeminded groups active in Harrisburg-averaged more than $2.5 million in revenues over the last five years.  Foundations led by the Heinz and Haas families have donated generously.  PennFuture is so loaded with cash it can even afford some of the most powerful and expensive lobbying firms in Harrisburg and Washington. 

Finally, to add insult to injury, PennFuture has extracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded grants in recent years from state agencies, which in turn enabled it to further lobby government for initiatives that raise taxes and increase energy costs.  Alternative energy companies like BP, Gamesa, and Iberdrola must be thrilled that their lobbying investments are matched with taxpayer money. 

PennFuture has learned to play the political game of money and relationships well.  Well indeed-its founder, John Hanger, parlayed his nonprofit gig into a Rendell Administration appointment as Secretary of Environmental Protection, where he carries out his former organization's agenda.  But while PennFuture points fingers at its opponents, the eco-activists have failed to examine the integrity and transparency practices within their own house.  

The amounts the organization reports it spends on lobbying do not align with the robust nature of its activities. These hypocritical, unethical and possibly illegal actions should be a source of curiosity for state and IRS investigators-and they should give policymakers pause when confronted with PennFuture's lobbying efforts.

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Paul Chesser is a senior fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation, a public policy education and research institute located in Harrisburg.



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