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Transparency and accountability: Pennsylvania lawmakers target dark money in campaigns

A file photo of campaign finance records
Sara Simon / Spotlight PA
A file photo of campaign finance records

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates for corporations and nonprofits to make unlimited hidden contributions to political causes.

While Pennsylvania cannot override this federal decision, one state lawmaker believes it can make those entities be more transparent with their spending.

“We have enormous amounts of money in the political arena,” Rep. Joe Webster, D-Montgomery, said. “A lot of it is dark money that we don’t really know who it’s coming from or what the intentions are. And it creates an enormous amount of influence and – I would argue – in the wrong directions in our political system.”

Webster said such influence prevents bills – such as ones creating universal background checks for firearm purchases – from passing and is hurting Pennsylvanians in the process.

“In a democracy where ninety-some percent of the population is in favor of something, how is it we can’t do that?,” he said. “There’s some other influence involved.”

He is proposing legislation that would require the disclosure of corporate expenditures on elections, require receipts and credit card statements be filed in campaign finance reports, limit donations, prohibit foreign-owned entities from contributing to campaigns or other influencing groups, and allow for leftover funds to be donated.

Webster’s bill is a companion to one introduced by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny.

Costa has introduced this legislation in multiple sessions only for it to die in committee as the Senate has had a GOP majority since the 1990s.

Costa said these types of contributions hurt the democratic process.

“I think it really impacts folks’ ability to participate in the electoral process,” he said. “It’s frustrating to a lot of people. I just think the influence of money changes the way our elections are held now.”

Costa said campaign finance reform is a major priority for him and his caucus that they will continue to pursue even if they don’t overcome the Republican’s six-seat majority.

In Pennsylvania, much of the dark money comes from one donor – Jeffrey Yass.

According to SpotlightPA, during the 2023 election, Republican candidate Carolyn Carluccio received financial support in the form of ads paid for by a group tied to Yass.

The libertarian billionaire has donated millions to conservative groups such as Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs.

Commonwealth Partners has two PACs: Commonwealth Leader’s Fund and Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund.

In 2023, Yass donated $18 million to the Students First PAC, which in turn gave $14.25 million to the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund. The Children’s Choice Fund would also donate to the Leader’s Fund.

Matt Brouillette, president and CEO of Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, said private gifting is a staple of our democracy.

“We’ve seen too often how people are threatened or harassed because they support one cause or another,” he said. “Every Pennsylvanian has the right to support the causes he or she believes in without fear of government retribution.”

Neither lawmaker said their bill is designed to go after Yass, but is more general and covers more scenarios.

Asked directly if Democrats are proposing this because that money gives Republicans an advantage, Costa noted Yass’ influence but said the legislation is more general.

“It’s difficult to compete with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle when they have unlimited resources and or they have folks like Yass or others who can make those investments to try to compete along those lines,” he said.