In his first term in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, House Speaker Bryan Cutler sponsored legislation to update the state’s lobbying disclosure law. More than a decade later, lobbying reforms are still a priority for Cutler, who is currently pushing an 11-bill package to overhaul the law. The legislative package looks to further separate the activities of lobbyists and campaign consultants by requiring lobbyists to disclose client conflicts and complete annual ethics training.
With lawmakers also planning to make changes to the state’s election laws, Cutler is also seeking to establish a bureau within the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s office to independently audit elections at the state and local levels. City & State PA spoke with Cutler about these proposals and the status of other government reforms in the interview below, which has been edited for length and clarity.
C&SPA: Lobbying reform has been a pretty big priority of yours since you were first elected. Before we get into your current proposals, could you walk us through some of the legislative changes to lobbying that you've spearheaded in the past?
BC: That was something that we had worked on and, one, it dealt with a disclosure, increased the fines, the debarment period, where if you did file false or misleading paperwork, that you would be barred from lobbying for a certain window. More importantly, there were also a lot of things that the lobbyist needed from the Department of State. For example, when they file all their paperwork, if they filed it electronically, there was no record that it was ever appropriately received. Then we added that they had to do an electronic receipt. You think of anything in our daily lives, whether it's a package from Amazon or you mail something at the post office, everybody can log in and see what happened and where it's going and where it went. And believe it or not, that was not the case for when they filed that kind of paperwork. So, we fixed that. There was some ambiguity in the law — because you can file both electronically, as well as in paper form. You can hand deliver that — and so there was ambiguity there. It appeared that once you started filing electronically, you could never go back to the paper method.
Those were changes that they specifically asked for, we were happy to work with him on, because in order for a system to work, it needs to be easy to use. And lobbyists do play an important role… because as elected officials, we’re expected to be experts on every issue. So when we don't know a particular industry or a particular area, we need to have resources that we can call — or as is more likely to happen — they'll reach out when they see bills on things that impact their clients. And that's really been the goal all along is to make it more open, more transparent and easier to use — not just for us as elected officials or the Department of State, but also the lobbyists themselves, as well as the constituents who are looking for the information.
C&SPA: What made the issue of lobbying reform such an important issue for you right off the bat — getting elected to Harrisburg?
BC: For me, that particular case involved a lobbyist back during the [Ed] Rendell years. They had been lobbying on behalf of the film tax credit industry, and it came out after the tax credits had been awarded that some of the information had not been properly disclosed. It raised some concerns because we got a lot of questions. I had said, well, wait a minute, how can you lobby for somebody, not disclose it, perhaps have an unfair advantage, and then turn around and benefit from it? That was the particular scenario. That was really kind of the 30-second explanation. It's important that everybody plays by the same rules and we were just looking to make that penalty a little stiffer as a deterrence. The phrase that I coined during that whole process was, “If you don't believe in the process, you won't believe in the product or the outcome.” And I think that applies in a lot of areas, and this one in particular, because there's a lot of public distrust with the legislative process already, and we need to do everything we can to make it transparent and easy to understand.
C&SPA: Looking forward, now you're introducing 11 pieces of legislation that would overhaul the state's lobbying laws. Could you give us sort of a Cliff Notes version of what this legislative package would change?
BC: There's 11 bills and one resolution — the resolution is the only one that will actually be in my name. The resolution will be directed to the Supreme Court. They ultimately have jurisdiction over lawyers and one of the issues that I think raises a lot of questions in people's minds is that lawyers actually are not subject to some of the same limits that other lobbyists are. It would simply request that the court promulgate rules that are consistent with our other existing laws, such as you take a one year break — when you leave somewhere you can't lobby them right away — and that's it for the resolution. The other group of bills, it's a lot of our newer members. For the information of the public, we've had a really high turnover here in the last decade-plus, and that has led to a lot of new interest in new issues. We had a group of our younger legislators who were interested in this, so they came together with a variety of ideas. They kind of fall into three buckets. One is openness and transparency, and they would require lobbyists to disclose and register lobbying-client conflicts with the Department of State. They would also require campaign consultants to register with the Department of State and require lobbyists to register with the department any equity they may hold in an entity they are lobbying on behalf of. The other components are limiting lobbyist influence, which deals with campaign consultants and some of them bleed over into being registered lobbyists and some of the firms playing multiple roles or wearing multiple hats. It would also prohibit them from receiving or giving referral payments, and it would prohibit state agencies from hiring an outside lobbyist, which has historically always raised some serious questions about the expenditure of taxpayer dollars because you've literally got government lobbying government. The last part is all related to ethical conduct — it would require all registered lobbyists to complete mandatory ethics training. We, as legislators, have to undergo it every session, as well. It would require them to register [with] the Department of State for any clients they try to find state financial assistance. And it would prohibit the lobbyists from collecting incentives through a third-party upon successfully securing taxpayer-funded grants.
C&SPA: You mentioned one change would be to disclose any lobbying-client conflicts with the Department of State. What would an example be of one of these types of conflicts?
BC: You might have a company that wants a certain change in the tax code, or perhaps the permitting process. It can be anything that deals with government, but it might be in direct conflict with another client that you have. It’s really just about transparency, because in the lawyer world, you're supposed to be a zealous advocate on behalf of your client. And if you've got two competing interests, it would make it very difficult sometimes to advocate very aggressively for one change if you know it's going to hurt another. It would just open that up so that everybody could know. In that world, clients can always waive conflicts if there's a conflict there. In many cases, they do.
C&SPA: And then zoning in on one more component of this package, it would also prohibit campaign consultants from also being a registered lobbyist. I know this is something that's gotten a lot of attention in Harrisburg in years past. How, in your eyes, would that improve public trust or reduce the potential conflicts of interest there?
BC: I think there's a couple ways that could happen, because obviously you could be working on behalf of a candidate, and then suddenly, maybe you poll the district issues or something like that. They might also then have an unfair advantage when it comes to lobbying for a particular issue that might be related to some information that you discovered on one side or the other. We're just looking to make some clear breaks there. As an elected official, for example, I know that whenever I leave the legislature, if I choose to lobby some day, I have to take a break when I leave. You’re just looking for that degree of separation.
C&SPA: I want to circle back to something you touched on in your press conference, too, about how lobbyists sometimes get a bad reputation among the public, which I think you labeled as "unfair." So, for readers who may not be familiar with what the lobbying process looks like on the ground, what does your average interaction with a lobbyist look like?
BC: A lot of times, it's just all issues-based. For example, I met with some folks this morning — the ARC — they deal with individuals that are intellectually disabled and provide a variety of services there. They were really just giving some real-world examples of the difficulty in finding help, some of the regulatory problems in terms of the barriers that that creates in getting access to services. So, sometimes it's just as simple as coming in and saying, “Hey, these are the challenges that we're looking at.” While I worked in health care, I didn't work in that particular subset, so they do play a vital role in that particular case to kind of come in and say, “Well, you know, this is something that's an issue.” I always say that Harrisburg is full of people that mean well. The problem is, sometimes, what is written isn’t how it's necessarily applied when it gets out into the public sphere. You need to hear from the people that are impacted with how it's being applied.
Being from Lancaster County, for example, working in health care – I feel real comfortable discussing, I'll still call experts in the field for particular issues. Same thing with agriculture — lived around it my entire life, very familiar with it. I didn’t know the first thing about coal mining when I first came here, so part of that was reaching out to the lobbyists who knew mine owners who would get you a tour, explain the process and show you what it was. So, there is a vital role there and I think that the overwhelming number of individuals do it very well, they maintain a high level of ethics, they maintain a great professional conduct. And as they work through that, I think a lot of folks do it very well. But when dealing with issues of public trust, perception is oftentimes reality. So, if people perceive that there's a problem, then you have to address it. And in this particular case, everybody may be doing everything perfectly legal. But we need to make sure that there is no room for people to say, “Well, I'm not so sure about that,” whatever that might be. And that's really what we're trying to work towards.
C&SPA: Obviously, these will need to move through the traditional legislative process, but based on your preliminary discussions with members, stakeholders and lobbyists, what has the reaction to these been like so far?
BC: I think the overall reaction has been very supportive. There's a lot of co-sponsors on the different bills. As it moves from committee, I know that [House State Government] Chairman [Seth] Grove’s got a lot of big issues on his plate right now. He's got reapportionment, he's got the election code reforms that he's working on, so I recognize that we're behind both of those very big and important issues in terms of committee movement. With that said, I also invited the lobbyists during my press comments. I said, “Reach out to the prime sponsors, tell us how the bills can be improved or other changes you might like to see.” I mentioned the electronic receipts, that was something that I would have never been aware of because I don't use the lobbying system. But they came and said, “Hey, wait a minute, that's a problem.” So, to the extent that there's other problems there, I think it's important that they reach out and engage in the process, and I'm sure they will, because they were very engaged the 10 years it took me to get the first piece done.
C&SPA: This package focuses exclusively on the lobbying component of government reforms. There are some advocates who have called for things like a gift ban to public officials, campaign contribution limits. Where do you stand on reforms like that?
I originally worked on some gift ban and gift changes when I started one of our bipartisan work groups early on in my own career. I've since handed that off to Rep. [Pam] DeLissio and some other colleagues — Rep. [Jesse] Topper and the PA One Caucus now. Look, you can pull my sheets, that's not something I take a lot. For me, it's not a problem. I've returned gifts. It's one of those things that I think allows people just to ask questions, and when dealing with the public trust, you need to try to avoid that as much as possible. Regarding some of the other reforms — gift bans, obviously one — there's two or three separate proposals on that. I'm sure that that will probably also be considered and discussed as this discussion goes on. You're right. It's not just lobbyists, there's lots of other proposals that have floated up from time to time regarding calendaring and bill movement and different things. I'm sure that we're likely to see all of these as amendments, should any of these bills move. But we'll deal with them like we do every other issue — you debate it fully, and we put up the votes and you see where it's at. As leader, that was something that I did routinely, even with bills that I personally didn't support, because I think that's why we're there — we're there to make votes and make decisions on behalf of our constituents. We all represent our constituents, and the votes will fall where they fall.
C&SPA: I want to shift gears a bit to your Bureau of Election Audits proposal that would establish that bureau within the Pennsylvania Auditor General's office. This would task the Auditor General with conducting election audits at the state and county levels. Is that correct?
Yeah, it would permanently house it over in the Auditor General's office. One of the reasons is because it's an independently elected office, and then that would be a true check and balance, because remember, we live in a Commonwealth, so the counties actually run the elections and then the state simply certifies based off the county certification. And that's an important part of that process, because it's not just necessarily, “Who won? What were the numbers?” It's also, “Were the process and procedures followed?” And the example I'll give that’s non-election related is our liquid fuels money. We send out gas tax money to all the municipalities to work on their roads, and they come in periodically and they audit it. And they say, it's not just, “Did you spend the money?” Because that's an easy answer — of course. The question is, “Did you spend the money? Did you spend it appropriately? Did you follow the appropriate laws while you were spending it?” They do a report and they issue it back to the townships — this would be no different. And I think that some of the election problems that we've seen, even just the primary last week, there were issues with scanning and barcodes, ballots that were printed in the wrong order. This one's in my home county — there were a number of ballots that had the wrong directions on them. They were Lancaster County ballots with Delaware County directions. All of those things fall back on quality control and the counties administering the elections, and that would all be part of that review. Obviously, to have faith in the electoral process, people need to understand again, no different than the lobbying reform, you have to believe in the process in order to believe in the outcomes. And that is just a very important piece of it in my opinion. The other problem, quite frankly, is some of the inconsistencies amongst the counties. You’ve got Philadelphia who just announced yesterday that they're violating the election code as written. They had a public meeting where they voted on it, and we'll be following up with that legislatively. But the issue there is you can't have counties counting ballots differently. The standards are set in law. They're responsible for administering the elections, but they have a duty to administer it consistent with state law. Where that probably was most noticeable was in the Sen. [Jim] Brewster race with Nicole Ziccarelli. In that case, my understanding is she went from winning by like 20-something votes to losing by I think 60-something votes. And because Allegheny County treated the ballots differently than Westmoreland County did — and the Senate seat happened to straddle those two counties — that's wrong. Standards should mean something and they should be followed.
C&SPA: I know the Department of State already conducted a risk-limiting audit of the 2020 presidential election, and then, according to the department, all counties will be conducting them by 2022. If that's the case, I'm just curious why this Auditor General election audit bill is even necessary if that's something that the state is already conducting?
BC: Specific to the risk-limiting audits — and that's something also that I had discussed with the governor back pre-election and post-election — I think audits are important, but I also think checks and balances are important. The idea that you've got the executive branch, who runs the election, also auditing the election, I don't think that that's necessarily a true check and balance. I think the best way to do it is to move it outside to the Auditor General, like we do with every other governmental program. Every other governmental program we let the Auditor General run, so I think it's appropriate in this particular case, as well.
C&SPA: Specifically looking at this election audit proposal, have you spoken with the governor's office at all about his willingness to sign this into law?
BC: No, we've not gotten to that discussion. I’ve got to get it out of committee first. I learned a long time ago you got to get 102 members in the House to agree and 26 in the Senate, and one in the governor's office, hopefully, to either sign it or let it become law. So my first order of business is to start local and work out from there. So, if I'm fortunate to get it out of committee and move it on to the floor, I'm sure that'll be all part of the discussion, because in the legislative world, you run a lot of parallel tracks, so all those discussions will be going on at one time. But the truth of the matter is, I want to look at trying to get it through to the House first.