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Darkened Lobby

Those who influence state government should report, says frequently mugged legislator

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John Maher says he has turned down many a ticket to a sporting event in his six-plus years representing Upper St. Clair in the state House. "I won't even let anybody buy me a drink in this town," says Maher.

But Maher is an exception to the rule in a town where lobbyists pass out Steelers and Penn State football tix, take legislators out for dinner, host them at sumptuous buffets and fete them in countless other ways that cost -- well, we're not sure how much. "Dozens and dozens of millions of dollars," Maher estimates. Pennsylvania is the only state without a law requiring the disclosure of lobbying spending, says Maher. In 1999 the state passed a law obliging lobbyists to report how much they spend and whom they represent, but the state Supreme Court struck it down. The court's argument: Many lobbyists are lawyers, and only the court can regulate lawyers.

The old law was in effect long enough for the state to get a count of the active lobbyists. There were 747, or nearly three for every member of the General Assembly. Oftentimes they provide useful information on issues important to their clients, Maher says, but they can become excessively chummy with legislators, giving their clients an in that the average voter can't match.

Now Maher is pushing a bill that takes a different approach to lobbying disclosure, and could get around the court's objections. His bill would compel the companies, unions, governments and interest groups that hire the lobbyists, or otherwise spend money lobbying, to report their spending. "It'll allow Pennsylvanians to know what is being spent to influence their government," he says. An Aug. 19 hearing on the bill went well, he adds. Maher hopes it can move out of the Committee on State Government in September, and come up for a vote some time thereafter.

Maher doesn't expect any public opposition from lobbyists or the entities that hire them -- just a quiet campaign to keep the bill from ever coming up for a vote. "The roaches never call for the Orkin man," he says. "They enjoy working in the darkness." Only public pressure, he says, could force the legislature to shine some light on the capital's culture of cooption.

Maher has one disclosure of his own to make: He does accept the "endless stream" of gift coffee mugs that come through his door, and tries desperately to give them away. "Is the mug going to affect my judgment?" he asks. "I don't think so."

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