Raising the bar of corruption
Government corruption in Pennsylvania is roughly as consistent as the Earth's rotation. But because it always is prosecuted and publicly reported in terms of individual cases, it's hard to place a price tag on overall corruption. But according to a valuable new study, the price tag in Pennsylvania for state government corruption alone is $1,308 per resident per year - about $16.6 billion.
That's a stunning number. But the international research team that calculated it actually under-estimated the ingenuity and commitment of Pennsylvania politicians when it found that the commonwealth has the fifth most corrupt state government. In the analysis by John Mikesell of Indiana University and Cheol Liu of the City University of Hong Kong, the top (or bottom) four corrupt states are Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Illinois.
The study examined "only" federal corruption convictions of 25,000 state officials across the United States between 1976 and 2008.
Thus, Pennsylvania is under-counted in several ways. The study does not include numerous state-level convictions of Pennsylvania officials over that period and following it. And two of the Senate's most powerful members, Robert Mellow of Lackawanna County and Vincent Fumo of Philadelphia, were convicted of federal corruption charges after 2008.
But the biggest under-appreciation of Pennsylvania corruption in the study is that in the commonwealth, a good deal of corruption is legal. As illustrated in the recent controversy over a failed sting operation against four state representatives from Philadelphia, it is legal for state legislators to accept "gifts" from people seeking to influence state government business, as long as the lawmakers report amounts above certain thresholds. And the state has no limits on campaign contributions to state candidates.
So the researchers unintentionally low-balled the corruption and its cost. But their determination of how the corruption costs citizens is exactly right.
The cost is not simply in what corrupt officials steal for themselves or in furtherance of their power. It's in the impact on public policy - legislative language, contracts and so on - governance in favor the narrow interests that buy influence with lawmakers.
The $1,308 in corruption cost per resident - all 12.7 million Pennsylvanians - is a sobering number. It means that, instead of a $1 billion-plus impending deficit, the government could have a sizable surplus. According to the study, the state could eliminate that $1,308 cost by raising the corruption bar all the way to average.