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Playing games with pay to play

John Cole | The Scranton Times-Tribune

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Saturday, April 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

HARRISBURG

With little fanfare, the state House last week unanimously approved a bill that attempts to end the “revolving door” in state contracting. And thanks to an amendment, it prohibits the state from entering into large-scale contracts with Iran.

Who could argue with that? The bill, sponsored by Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland, was aimed at curbing the practice in which top state officials move to industries they've been regulating and sometimes head back to state oversight agencies. Dunbar said it would stop the award of multimillion-dollar contracts based on “political favoritism.”

But what happened along the way was instructive on what's wrong with Harrisburg.

The Republican-controlled House defeated an amendment by Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-Washington County, aimed at stopping “pay to play,” whereby lucrative campaign contributions pave the way for state or local contracts. It's more than just theory. A grand jury report last month outlined a pay-to-play scheme at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission in which contracts allegedly were rigged for those who donated to campaigns or provided gifts to agency officials.

It was defeated 107-91.

Neuman's bill would have put the onus on those bidding for state contracts. They'd be required to submit a disclosure statement with all contributions made in the previous two years. All disclosure statements would be reported on a state website. Contractors violating the provisions could be barred from seeking state contracts.

He had another proposal extending the time period for blocking contributions to four years.

Why would these measures be shelved?

“They (amendments) frankly were unenforceable and went too far,” said Stephen Miskin, a House GOP spokesman. He rejected any assertion it was rejected because Neuman is a Democrat.

Miskin contends it's part of a political strategy by House Democrats to force votes on issues like this that may sound good but are flawed. Sometimes, the Democrats' tactic is to “oppose everything to score political points.

“It doesn't mean we won't get to pay-to-play legislation in light of the turnpike,” Miskin said.

“We think they were good government amendments,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont. Good government, after all, is good politics, he says.

Throughout Democrat Gov. Ed Rendell's tenure, House Republicans led the charge for contract reform, claiming abuse by agencies during the Rendell years. So why not now?

Despite the flap over the Neuman amendment, don't be surprised to see a comprehensive pay-to-play bill pushed by House Republicans and, perhaps, passed quickly.

This type of legislation likely never got off the ground before because anything that remotely threatened the Turnpike Commission's autonomy was squelched by senators who had some control over the agency.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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