- Current Pennsylvania law allows local governments and public agencies to hire contract lobbyists, using taxpayer dollars, to lobby state and federal governments—often for more taxpayer dollars.
- Right-to-Know (RTK) requests and lobbying records revealed 26 local governments and agencies spent $18 million in tax dollars to hire contract lobbyists.
- These findings are a mere glimpse of total taxpayer-funded lobbying due to incomplete lobbying records and limited responses to RTK requests.
- Prohibiting local governments and public agencies from hiring contract lobbyists would increase transparency and prevent the diversion of tax dollars from public services to lobbying activities that harm taxpayers.
To understand the scope of taxpayer-funded lobbying, the Commonwealth Foundation submitted a series of RTK requests, per the state Right-to-Know Law, to local governments and regional government authorities across the commonwealth.1
The Commonwealth Foundation examined local governments including boroughs, cities, counties, school districts, along with state and regional agencies. The agencies and authorities studied included the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC), the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), The Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA), the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County (RAAC), the Public Parking Authority of Pittsburgh, the Allegheny County Airport Authority, and the Schuylkill County Municipal Authority. The requests asked for records “showing the hiring of lobbying organization[s] since 2017…[and] the amount of money the agency transmits to the organization[s].”2
Roughly 40% of local government and government agencies responded to email requests.3 The Commonwealth Foundation combined records received via RTK requests with the Pennsylvania Department of State (DOS) online lobbying database that has records going back to 2007.
EXAMPLES OF TAXPAYER-FUNDED HIRING OF CONTRACT LOBBYISTS
Eight counties spent $5.2 million hiring contract lobbyists from 2007–2020.4
- Beaver County paid more than $250,000 to Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney from 2009–2016 to lobby the state for federal stimulus money—securing “nearly $300,000 in state funding” in the first year.5
- Greene County retained lobbying firm Delta Development Group for over $2 million from 2007–2020 to secure funds for economic development projects, such as a public airport, and studies on transportation and the local housing market.6
- Luzerne County paid Maverick Strategies $95,000 in fiscal year (FY) 2019–2020. During that time, they secured a $1 million state grant. However, several county council members resisted hiring a lobbying firm, with one member saying, “it’s kind of a sad day to see that government is looking at a lobbyist to lobby the government.”7 The county chose not to renew the contract in 2021, citing $60,000 in savings.8
Seven cities spent at least $2.8 million hiring contract lobbyists.9
- Lancaster and, briefly, York City hired Pugliese Associates for $304,000 from 2012–2020. They successfully lobbied to create a Community Revitalization and Improvement Zone (CRIZ), or special tax breaks for developers in Lancaster. Lancaster City records also show they retained Pugliese to acquire $3.5 million in Regional Assistance Capital Program (RACP) funding for two new firehouses in 2019–2020 and supported a program allowing the city to access taxing authority under Act 47.10
- Philadelphia hired five lobbying firms at overlapping times for $2 million between 2008–2020, according to the DOS lobbying database records. In addition, Philadelphia City Council spent $90,000 from 2015–2018 hiring Triad Strategies.
At least eight school districts also hire contract lobbyists.
- Pittsburgh School District paid $552,075 to Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney from 2013–2020. Though the district provided contracts dating back to 2008, they did not have a record of payments. A search of the DOS lobbying database shows the district spent an added $293,467 for lobbying from April 2008–December 2012.
Public Agencies engage in contract lobbying.
- The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) retained six lobbying firms and is slated to spend $3.82 million between 2015–January 2022. The lobbying firms include American Continental Group ($700,000), Duane Morris LLP ($1 million), SBL Strategies ($480,000), TJC Strategic Advisors/Wanner Associates ($600,000), Long Nyquist/Emerald Strategies ($540,000), and Paul Dlugolecki/S.R. Wojdak & Associates ($420,00).
- The Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) spent $177,000 on lobbyists from 2017–2019. PPA paid Gray & Oscar $44,000 from 2017–2019 and paid $64,000 to Cohen & Grigsby and Bellevue Strategies for six months in 2018–2019. Bellevue Strategies is a principal lobbyist defending the Philadelphia Beverage Tax.11 Provided records show that the PPA paid Fareed Ahmed $69,000 from 2016–2018 for general lobbying and consulting. However, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in July 2018 that Ahmed had collected $3,000 a month for 17 years ($639,000 total), despite not being a registered lobbyist and providing few details of his services.12
- The Allegheny County Airport Authority (ACAA) retained three lobbying firms for almost $2.1 million from 2009–2020. ACAA paid Malady & Wooten $210,000 (2009–2013), Cohen & Grigsby $1.25 million (2013–2020), and Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney $626,000 (2009–2020). ACAA manages two regional airports—via a board appointed by the Allegheny County Chief Executive. The Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner threatened to sue ACAA for not complying with requests to examine their contracting processes in 2015.13 She also investigated the board members for conflicts of interest in 2018 after two members invested in an airline that received ACAA funding. Set to begin a $1 billion project, Wagner said it presented ample opportunity for “self-dealing and favoritism.”14
POLICY SOLUTION: PROHIBIT GOVERNMENTS FROM HIRING CONTRACT LOBBYISTS
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Pennsylvania is among 35 states without restrictions on using tax dollars for lobbying. Banning public agencies from hiring contract lobbyists, as done in Arizona and Utah, would increase transparency and limit the ability of governments to divert tax dollars from services to lobbying activities designed to get more tax dollars.
- Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order in 2016 banning contract lobbyists from working for taxpayer-funded agencies and boards unless they receive permission from the Department of Administration.15 Experience with lobbyists blocking attempts to reduce occupational licensing requirements and a survey of state boards and commissions that reported spending $1 million on lobbyists the prior year prompted the executive order. The initial executive order ended the contracts of 10 lobbyists.16 The legislature codified the move in 2017.17
- Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed an executive order in 2018 banning executive branch employees, public university employees, the Utah National Guard, and the state parole board from retaining contract lobbyists. Utah still permits its state agencies to appoint two legislative affairs personnel (instead of contract lobbyists) and allows division directors, deputy directors, and legislative liaisons to communicate with lawmakers. Attempts to codify this order in 2018 were unsuccessful.18
Local governments and public agencies should maintain their responsibility to directly engage with other government agencies and steward their services to taxpayers.
In Pennsylvania, there are two bills to prohibit taxpayer-funded lobbying contracts.
- HB 1607, sponsored by Rep. Russ Diamond, prohibits any Commonwealth entity from hiring an outside lobbyist or consultant to influence the legislature, executive branch, or judiciary.
- SB 802, sponsored by Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, also limits a Commonwealth entity—specifically including local governments and state agencies–from hiring a lobbyist or political consultant to influence the decision-making process of another Commonwealth entity or agency.
Both are part of larger lobbying reform packages in their respective chambers.19
LIMITED RECORDS AND LACK OF TRANSPARENCY
The lack of adequate responses to our RTK requests and neglect by several agencies to report lobbying activities to the Pennsylvania Department of State (DOS) prevented the authors from presenting a comprehensive accounting of all taxpayer-funded lobbying contracts. Despite follow up RTK requests when government records conflicted with records available on the ’DOS’s online lobbying database, some agencies still refused to be transparent.
For example, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission denied possessing any records of hired lobbyists. However, the state lobbying database shows they retained five contract lobbyists since 2007, with expenditures only reported from 2007–2010.
On the other hand, Schuylkill County Municipal Authority provided records of paying $876,000 to Bob Allen & Associates, yet $0 was reported to the state lobbying database.
Another obstacle are the limitations in the law. Specifically, the law exempts reporting for any individual who is not compensated for lobbying, any lobbyists, firm, or principal lobbying less than 20 hours over 3 months and any individual receiving less than $2,500 for lobbying services over 3 months.
Finally, this research does not take into consideration the scope of “in-house” lobbying or how often government employees engage in lobbying other parts of government. In other words, local governments and public agencies choose to hire lobbyists in addition to lobbyists they may have on staff.
1There are approximately 2,500 local governments in Pennsylvania excluding townships and fire or police departments. Act of Feb. 14, 2008, P.L. 6, No. 3, https://www.openrecords.pa.gov/Documents/RTKL/PA_Right-To-Know_Law.pdf.
2Pennsylvania Department of State, “Lobbying Services,” (Accessed October 2021), https://www.palobbyingservices.pa.gov/Public/wfSearch.aspx#BOTTOM.
3Contact information were identified via the state Office of Open Records (OOR) online database, however, this list was incomplete and outdated..“Find Agency Open Records Officers,” Office of Open Records (Accessed February 2020), https://www.openrecords.pa.gov/RTKL/AOROSearch.cfm.
4The eight counties were: Beaver, Dauphin, Delaware, Erie, Greene, Luzerne, Tioga, and Warren.
5Buchanan’s State Government Relations Group Noted in Beaver County Times for Helping Raise Nearly $300,000 in State Funding,” Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, (April 2011), https://www.bipc.com/buchanans-state-government-relations-group-noted-in-beaver-county-times-for-helping-raise-nearly-$300,000-in-state-funding.
7Eric Mark, “County Council Approves Contract with Lobbying Firm,” Associated Press, (April 2019), https://apnews.com/article/c3f885d2a80d442697ca30ad246e677d.
8Eric Mark, “Luzerne County Will Not Renew Lobbyist Contract Next Year,” Associated Press, (October 2020), https://www.standardspeaker.com/news/luzerne-county-will-not-renew-lobbyist-contract-next-year/article_511b2192-1eff-527d-ba23-1cf0dca18026.html.
9The cities were: Allentown, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Philadelphia, Philadelphia City Council (they file separate from the city), Pittsburgh, and York.
10Case Studies,” Pugliese Associations, https://puglieseassociates.com/clients/case-studies/.
11“Ryan Briggs, “Ethics Board Cites Lobbying Groups Linked to Philly Soda Tax Push,” City & State Pennsylvania, (July 2018), https://www.cityandstatepa.com/content/board-ethics-cites-lobbying-groups-linked-philly-soda-tax-push.
12William Bender, “PPA Lobbyist Paid $3,000 a Month. For What?” Philadelphia Inquirer, (July 2018), https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/fareed-ahmed-philadelphia-parking-authority-consultant-lobbyist-20180720.html.
13Michael Lynch, “County Controller Threatens to Take Four Authorities to Court,” WESA (January 2015), https://www.wesa.fm/politics-government/2015-01-28/county-controller-threatens-to-take-four-authorities-to-court.
14This legislation would further allow for injunctive relief and legal fees recovery in the event a political subdivision persists in funding prohibited lobbying activity with taxpayer funds and allows.
15““Executive Order 2016-05 State Governmental Units; Professional Lobbyist Contracts, Prohibition” State of Arizona (June 29, 2016), https://azgovernor.gov/sites/default/files/state_governmental_units_professional_lobbyist_contracts_prohibition_eo.pdf.
16Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, “Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey Fires State’s Contract Lobbyists,” AZCentral.com (June 29, 2016), https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/arizona/2016/06/29/gov-doug-ducey-fires-arizona-contract-lobbyists/86526768/.
17“Governor Ducey Signs Taxpayer-Funded Lobbying Ban into Law,” Office of the Governor (April 10, 2017), https://azgovernor.gov/governor/news/2017/04/governor-ducey-signs-taxpayer-funded-lobbying-ban-law.
18“Benjamin Wood, “Utah Gov. Gary Herbert Orders Executive Branch Staff to Stop Lobbying on Capitol Hill After Lawmakers Debate A Ban,” Salt Lake Tribune (February 27, 2018), https://www.sltrib.com/news/education/2018/02/28/lawmaker-wants-to-promote-good-information-by-restricting-public-employees-including-elected-school-board-members-from-talking-to-lawmakers/.
19“House Republicans Introduce New Rules for Lobbyists,” Representative Cutler (June 11, 2021), http://www.repcutler.com/News/19919/Latest-News/House-Republicans-Introduce-New-Rules-for-Lobbyists; “Lobbyist Disclosure Reform Package,” Pennsylvania State Senate Co-Sponsor Memorandum, (October 2021), https://www.legis.state.pa.us//cfdocs/Legis/CSM/showMemoPublic.cfm?chamber=S&SPick=20210&cosponId=35655.