Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA
February 8, 2024
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HARRISBURG — The state agency that promotes hunting in Pennsylvania has hired a lobbying firm run by a former top lawmaker using tens of thousands of dollars in public funds, an unusual arrangement that at least one legislator has tried to ban.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission entered into a $10,000-per-month contract last fall with Allegheny Strategy Partners, according to records obtained by Spotlight PA through a public records request. Joe Scarnati, a Jefferson County Republican who held the top leadership post in the state Senate for more than a decade, is one of three partners in the firm.
Though a handful of cities and regional authorities that rely on state aid deploy lobbyists to Harrisburg, state-level government agencies rarely employ these firms to gain influence with people who are essentially colleagues.
And when they do, it sparks controversy. Good-government advocates and some Pennsylvania lawmakers have questioned whether taxpayers benefit when their money is used in this way, and other states have banned or restricted the practice.
Under the agreement with the Game Commission, Allegheny Partners is providing “government relations services,” although the contract provided to Spotlight PA does not specify which entity or person the agency wants the firm to target or on what issue. Neither do the four invoices, totaling $41,229.25, that Allegheny Strategy Partners submitted to the Game Commission from Oct. 1, 2023, through the start of this year.
In an email this week, Game Commission spokesperson Travis Lau said Allegheny Partners wasn’t hired to lobby on a specific issue but instead is helping the agency in “developing and strengthening relationships with members of the General Assembly through their experience in navigating the legislative process.”
According to its employee directory, however, the Game Commission already has a person on staff acting as liaison with the General Assembly at an annual salary of $105,507.
When asked about it, Lau said the commission hired private lobbyists to supplement those efforts and “increase our effectiveness.”
A search of lobbying records shows only one other state agency has hired lobbyists since 2007, the year that the state launched its lobbying disclosure website.
That year, then-Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, was pushing a plan to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to raise billions of dollars to underwrite repairs for the state’s roadways and bridges, and potentially increase public transportation funding.
The plan faced legislative pushback and eventually fizzled. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission paid private lobbyists hundreds of thousands of dollars to help it defeat the proposal as well as secure more federal funding, among other things. State records show it contracted with five private lobbying firms from 2007 through 2009, spending just shy of $1 million.
Beyond the Turnpike Commission, a handful of foundations associated with universities within Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education use private lobbyists, although the universities themselves have not. The four state-related universities — Lincoln, Penn State, Pitt, and Temple — currently employ lobbyists or have in the past.
Unlike the Game Commission, however, those universities must convince the legislature to continue giving them state money and push hard each year for increases.
The Game Commission is an independent state agency that doesn’t receive money from the state’s main bank account, called the general fund. (Its board is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.)
The agency is instead primarily funded by hunting and furtaker license sales, as well as State Game Lands timber, mineral, and oil/gas revenues; a federal excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition; and assets that have been procured with license dollars.
More than half of the Game Commission’s annual revenue comes from license sales. Any hike in license fees must be approved by the legislature.
In his email, Lau, the Game Commission’s spokesperson, noted that the state Senate last year approved a bill that contained a provision to transfer $150 million from the commission to a fund that underwrites watershed restoration. It was hotly opposed by organizations representing hunters, as well as some environmental groups, and eventually failed.
Lau said the effort “demonstrated the importance of increased advocacy and outreach with members of the Legislature,” something he said Allegheny Strategy Partners was well-positioned to accomplish.
As the GOP-controlled state Senate’s president pro tempore for 14 years before his retirement, Scarnati was involved in brokering every major budget and policy deal in the Capitol spanning three different gubernatorial administrations. For many of those years, he also was the chief fundraiser for the chamber’s Republican campaign arm, deeply involved in plotting the GOP’s continued control of the chamber.
“Joe Scarnati’s experience navigating the highest levels of state government are unrivaled,” boasted the news release that Allegheny Strategy Partners circulated in late 2020, when it announced his decision to join the then-fledgling firm.
Since that time, the firm has grown to represent nearly 80 clients, from nonprofits to trade associations to large corporations like Amazon, according to lobbying disclosure records.
Neither Scarnati nor another Allegheny Strategy partner responded to a request for comment.
Since 2020, there has been legislative lip service — although no concrete action — given to reining in the influence of lobbyists. Among them were proposals to sharply restrict gifts by lobbyists to lawmakers (Pennsylvania does not have a gift ban in place) and bolster lobbying disclosure requirements.
As part of that lobbying reform push, state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R., York) championed a bill in the last legislative session that would ban commonwealth agencies from hiring lobbying firms. When told about the contract between the Game Commission and Allegheny Strategy Partners, her office said she will reintroduce the bill in this session.
“The senator feels very strongly that taxpayer funds should not be used to hire lobbyists,” Jon Hopcraft, Phillips-Hill’s chief of staff, told Spotlight PA. “After sharing your information with her, she will reintroduce legislation that bans state agencies from hiring lobbyists.”
In late 2021, the conservative Commonwealth Foundation released a report based on hundreds of public records requests that showcased the wide array of government agencies in Pennsylvania — the majority of them local governments or authorities, as well as school boards — that use public funds to hire lobbyists.
They include the cities of Lancaster and Philadelphia, as well as the Pittsburgh school district and SEPTA.
The Commonwealth Foundation supports banning local governments and public agencies from hiring contract lobbyists, a change it asserts would increase transparency and “prevent the diversion of tax dollars from public services to lobbying activities that harm taxpayers.”
“Taxpayer-funded lobbying is a vicious cycle that harms everyone,” Nathan Benefield, the Commonwealth Foundation’s senior vice president, told Spotlight PA. “State agencies and local governments spend taxpayer money to lobby other government bodies, almost always to grow the size and cost of government. Taxpayers should be outraged that their money is being used against them.”
At least 15 states ban or sharply restrict the use of taxpayer dollars for hiring lobbyists, according to a 2021 survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Among them is Texas, which bans state agencies from using taxpayer dollars to hire outside lobbyists. Some Republican lawmakers there want to take the ban a step further, engaging in recent years in a fierce fight to make the state the first in the country to also prohibit local governments from hiring lobbyists to represent them in the Capitol.
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