Quid pro quo
Some people make campaign contributions because they are interested in good governance. But because state lawmakers won't limit how much individuals can give to their campaigns, well-heeled interests are able to invest heavily in government that is good - to them.
Robert Swift, The Times-Shamrock Harrisburg bureau chief, reported recently on local lawmakers securing district office space from landlords who have contributed to their campaigns.
Distribution of state money is one way that incumbents are able to use public resources to enhance their standing at home. For decades, for example, lawmakers allowed themselves to "negotiate" their own publicly funded car leases with dealers in their home districts - good business for the dealer and good publicly funded politics for the lawmaker.
Rents are a similar but somewhat different matter. State Sen. John Blake of Lackawanna County, for example, has a district office at 409 Lackawanna Ave. - a fine location for helping to generate economic activity in downtown Scranton. The state pays $2,400 a month for the space in a building owned by Scranton Mall Associates, of which retailer Al Boscov is president. Mr. Boscov has made $31,000 in contributions to Mr. Blake's committee since 2010.
There are simple ways to eliminate any appearance of impropriety that might arise from the state paying landlords who contribute to the officeholder's campaign.
One would be to require district offices to be located in local government office buildings whenever possible. Those offices tend to be centrally located, handicapped-accessible and near public parking. That would enable the state to set standard rates rather than commercial real estate rates. And, the $6 million in rent money that the state pays for district offices each year would flow into local government treasuries - back to taxpayers.
That's better than Common Cause's recommendation to preclude landlords from contributing to their tenants' campaigns. Under the public space scenario, private sector landlords would retain their right to contribute. But doubt about whether the contribution is in exchange for public business would be eliminated.
Another way to prevent potential quid pro quos, involving not just rents but influence over important public business, is to limit campaign contributions so that lawmakers won't feel any special obligation based on donations.
Like so many other aspects of neglected state government reform, the issue is political will, rather than the complexity of the issue.