20031019 Morning Call State Funds Tapped for House Politics

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State funds tapped for House politics ** Leaders' use of public money is rigged to benefit incumbents.' Date: October 19, 2003 The state's financial wonks finished the bean counting a year ago June and mournfully declared the bad news: Pennsylvania ended the fiscal year with a $1.2 billion deficit.House legislative leaders promptly went on an election-year spending spree. Campaign-style ads were filmed. Television airtime was bought. Phone banks cranked up. Political consultants sprang into act
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  State funds tapped for House politics** Leaders' use of public money is rigged to benefit incumbents.'Date: October 19, 2003The state's financial wonks finished the bean counting a year ago Juneand mournfully declared the bad news: Pennsylvania ended the fiscal yearwith a $1.2 billion deficit.House legislative leaders promptly went on anelection-year spending spree.Campaign-style ads were filmed. Television airtime was bought. Phonebanks cranked up. Political consultants sprang into action. Polls weretaken, and focus groups quizzed.Taxpayers were sent the bill.A Morning Call investigation has revealed that $3.2 million was spentfrom funds controlled by the top state House Republican and Democrat onan array of services meant to protect incumbents facing re-election lastyear.The money came from Special Leadership Accounts, a pair of $12.3million funds controlled by the House majority and minority leaders.The accounts are supposed to be for furthering public policy and tooperate their caucuses. But the spending isn't audited, oversight isminimal and the leaders -- Republican John Perzel of Philadelphia andDemocrat H. William DeWeese of Waynesburg in rural Greene County -- useit as they see fit.Perzel led the way in spending on politics, funneling $2.8 million lastsummer in a variety of incumbent protection initiatives. In contrast,DeWeese spent $420,000.DeWeese set the pace for using the leadership account on travel, diningand purchases of public relations giveaways -- well more than $100,000worth. The money paid for everything from ceremonial chairs to teddybears, flowers for the office, pricey dinners and political junkets.Perzel doesn't spend much on travel, but last summer focused his spendingon getting his rank-and-file re-elected -- in ways that weren't illegalbut blurred the boundary between politics and policy.In the five months leading up to the November elections, he spent:  $1.4 million on a Republican campaign consulting firm that employsPerzel's stepson. The money went to produce and air campaign-style TV adsto benefit incumbent Republicans facing tough re-election challenges.$1 million for the same purposes to Spring Hill Group, owned and operatedby the brother of Republican state Rep. Ron Raymond of Philadelphia.$4,000 for make-up artists to make the incumbents look good on those 30-second television spots.$285,000 for phone banks to call potential voters -- at up to $1.62 acall. The service reminded folks of the incumbent's name and includedfollow-up letters as a further reminder. The company's owner now runs there-election campaign of U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.$62,500 on GOP operative Martin O'Rourke of Bucks County as an independent communications and public relations adviser for Perzel, andon cable TV air time for campaign-style ads. O'Rourke also worked onPerzel's re-election campaign.$46,000 on an Easton firm to produce voter-registration data in targetedlegislative districts, and to make phone calls for incumbent Republicans. Frankly, I don't think $3 million spread out over 30 or 35 members isexorbitant, said Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House Republicans. Everything is political. We live in a political world. A lot of what wedo is politics in some way. Political doesn't mean bad. Miskin insisted the expenditures were not at all part of a campaignstrategy. Yet the vast majority of the GOP effort and expense was concentrated insuburban Philadelphia, where Republicans feared Democrat Ed Rendell, theformer mayor of Philadelphia, could have long enough coattails in his runfor governor to unseat Republican rank-and-file House members. Andelsewhere, the GOP targeted incumbents facing tough challengers, Houserecords show.In central Pennsylvania, Republican Mark McNaughton barely survived afierce battle for his suburban Harrisburg district, in part by blanketingthe airwaves with his face and name at taxpayer expense. And Republican  Teresa Forcier was so in fear of losing her seat north of Pittsburgh thaton some days her taxpayer-paid TV ads aired 900 times.Hair and make-up specialists charged between $350 and $400 for eachcandidate put on the air.Although the 30-second ads appear to be campaign-related, the incumbentsare careful never to ask directly for votes. That allows the commercialsto be classified as public service announcements. And who paid for themdoes not have to be disclosed on the air under state election law. It's a political system'Records show that Democrats spent $420,000 in the months before theelection to air campaign-related commercials on radio and cable networks,seat focus groups and pay pollsters. Look, it's a political system, said Larry Ceisler, the Democraticoperative who bought the airtime for his party's public service commercials. Ours are not structured as blatantly political. I don'tknow as the Republicans can say the same. One Democratic focus group run by the longtime Democratic campaignconsulting firm Global Strategies explored the re-election chances ofJohn Lawless. A Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat fromMontgomery County, Lawless saw his district splintered into pieces byvengeful Republicans who successfully sought his defeat last year.One Democratic poll, in fact, asked if voters would be more likely toboot out of office an incumbent who used tax dollars for re-electionpurposes. Voters said no, they wouldn't be so inclined. This is a waste of taxpayer money and is a direct assault on our systemof government, said Matthew J. Brouillette, president of theconservative think tank the Commonwealth Foundation. There isn't anickel spent up there that didn't first come out of the pocket of a hard-working Pennsylvanian. Such an incumbent-protection scheme, he said, creates a political classthat is immovable.   State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, has twice pushed a bill to outlaw theuse of public money for these TV spots, calling them thinly veiledcampaign commercials for those in tough elections. The bill was defeated both times. Even his own party leaders workedagainst him.Both parties cloaked their taxpayer-paid re-election TV ads in worthystate programs, such as state-paid health coverage for children, or thestate's Do Not Call List, which bans telemarketers from calling peoplewho sign up.That law, however, does not apply to political calls.So, while some Republican incumbents were on TV plugging the Do Not Calllist and demonizing telemarketers, voters simultaneously were gettingsaturated by phone calls.Taxpayer-paid phone calls.In fact, Eagle Consulting was paid $285,000 to call voters to tell themabout incumbent Republican lawmakers.The calls cost $1.62 each if a real person answered, or 50 cents if ananswering machine picked up. A $50 fee was charged for each day thatcalls were made in the early morning, before potential voters went towork, according to House records.Eagle Consulting billed the Republicans on stationery that described thecompany as political consulting and strategic research. The company isowned by Christopher Nicholas, who is running Specter's re-electioncampaign.Nicholas declined to comment.Payments for the phone operation stopped as soon as last fall's NovemberHouse elections were held.The money also dried up for Issue Management, which was paid $1.4 millionto produce and air the Republican incumbent public serviceannouncements.
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