Rendell’s War on (Some) Special Interests

In his eighth and final budget address, Gov. Ed Rendell criticized “special interests” multiple times for stymieing his legislative proposals.  He said, “[T]he time has come to put stricter controls not simply on what they report, but on what they do.”  He called for a cap on special interest groups’ campaign contributions, implying that limits will lower the hurdles for his policy proposals.

So it was ironic when, just days after the governor’s hammering of special interests, I received solicitations from dozens of House Democrats wanting me to contribute $250 to $5,000 to support their re-election campaigns.  Apparently what’s bad for the goose is good for the gander.

After an inquiry as to why I was receiving these unsolicited requests via mail and e-mail, I was informed that the House Democrat Campaign Committee trolls Pennsylvania’s online database of “lobbyist disclosure” forms for special interests from which to solicit contributions.  [Note: I’m listed as a “lobbyist” because the state’s poorly written lobbyist disclosure law classifies anyone who “directly or indirectly” communicates with elected officials as a “lobbyist”.]

Gov. Rendell, of course, didn’t declare war on all special interests – only those who oppose his tax-borrow-and-spend agenda.  For example, while he lambasts the natural gas industry for opposing yet another tax upon the several it already pays, he gives a pass to the special interests clamoring for more of its money.

PennFuture, the organization started by Secretary of Environmental Protection John Hanger, lobbies legislators and the governor for higher taxes and onerous mandates, while also receiving millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded grants.  Ironically, the organization then uses that money to lobby for even higher taxes and fees and more onerous government mandates.  Indeed, Gov. Rendell proposes millions of dollars in additional taxpayer subsidies, along with new mandates, to create “green jobs.”

So while job creators who are simply trying to keep the government from taking more of their money are labeled by Gov. Rendell as special interests, organizations like PennFuture that lobby for more of other people’s money are somehow considered virtuous.

Then there’s Gov. Rendell’s personal special interest – Ballard Spahr, his old law firm, the partners of which directly contributed over $990,000 to his campaign coffers from 2001-2008.  Of course, none of those campaign contributions included the $250,000 Rendell received from the law firm when he was “between jobs” running for Governor in 2001 and 2002.  He even admitted to not doing any legal work and only running for the state’s highest office.

In return, the lobbying firm has received at least $8.4 million in taxpayer money during Rendell’s tenure as governor. 

Other examples include the teachers’ unions lobbying for hundreds of millions of dollars more every year and construction unions lobbying for special privileges such as “project labor agreements.”  And there are politically connected corporations and individuals securing taxpayer handouts, such as Big Hollywood’s “Film Tax Credit” that gave multi-millionaire producer M. Night Shymalan $35 million and the $15 million to temporarily keep Harley Davidson in York County.

Obviously one man’s special interest is another man’s campaign cash cow – just ask the House Democrats.  But the real special interests at work against the interests of the people of Pennsylvania are the organizations lobbying, putting cash inside the gates of the governor’s mansion, and hitting the jackpot of taxpayer-funded grants, contracts, and carve-outs.

Lobbyists working to defend their clients from further government encroachment on their private property is hardly the same as special interests trying to get more of what they didn’t earn.  Those are the real and harmful special interests working against the public’s interest.  Unfortunately for Gov. Rendell, if he wants to take aim at these culprits of dysfunctional government in Harrisburg, he’d have to begin by declaring war on the folks darkening the doors of his offices.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is  president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.