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House panel to look at nonprofits trying to influence state races

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By Brad Bumsted and Megan Rogers
Thursday, May 23, 2013, 3:33 p.m.

HARRISBURG — The House State Government Committee in June will hold a hearing to examine nonprofit groups that spend money to influence campaigns with little public disclosure about who runs the groups and contributes to them.

The committee's chairman, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, said on Thursday that the hearing will be conducted June 5.

“They appear to be political committees, more than anything else,” Metcalfe said. “I don't believe there's a loophole in our current law. I believe there's a loophole in enforcement.”

Metcalfe cited Pennsylvanians for Accountability, which has run negative TV ads targeting Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

“A group attempting to influence the outcome of an election ought to register as a political committee,” he said.

Metcalfe said he intends to call the Department of State, which oversees elections, and the attorney general's office to testify.

Pennsylvanians for Accountability spokeswoman Lynsey Kryzwick said the group's primary purpose is to inform people about misinformation Corbett provides about his budget priorities. She said the group is filing for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status.

“This hearing is nothing more than a partisan attempt to silence the real concerns that Pennsylvania taxpayers have with Gov. Corbett's budget and the direction that he's taking our state,” Kryzwick said in an emailed statement.

“What taxpayers really care about are the struggles to find steady work and overcrowded schools — and that middle-class families are facing devastating cuts in the budget while the governor's campaign donors are getting tax breaks,” she said.

Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said the ads distort the governor's record. He said the organization should disclose who contributes to its campaign.

“I don't know why they're hiding behind the skirt of a nonprofit that refuses to list their donors, unless they're ashamed of what the TV commercials are because they know they are distorting Corbett's record,” Harley said.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said the campaign finance law contains loopholes. He supports a bill sponsored by Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills. The legislation would cap contribution limits; enhance disclosure laws to include all individuals and organizations donating to political campaigns; and require corporations to get shareholders' approval for campaign contributions greater than $10,000.

“If you are engaged in political campaigning, the public has the right to know who you are, what your goals and agenda are, and who is backing you,” Kauffman said.

Corporations that donate money to a campaign can sway the outcome of elections significantly, he said. Shareholders and consumers have a right to know which political campaigns that a company supports.

“Democracy really should not be for sale,” Kauffman said.

Pennsylvania is one of a few states that don't limit campaign contributions. Costa said his bill aims to maintain a balance of influence in elections.

“This legislation is intended to bring standards to Pennsylvania's electoral process that are common in most other state and federal elections,” Costa wrote in a memorandum on the bill.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or Megan Rogers is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.

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