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It’s time to rein in the ‘clubby’ culture at the State Capitol

The culture of Harrisburg would be best described as “clubby.”

After legislative sessions at the State Capitol on Third Street, lawmakers and their staffs often head toward the wide selection of establishments on Second Street and elsewhere to socialize and strategize — and to attend the constant fundraisers happening around the city.

But it’s not just those with offices in the capitol who make up this scene: It’s also the lawyers and lobbyists who make their living by befriending and influencing legislators from around the state for whom Harrisburg becomes a second home.

Members interact constantly with lawyers and their firms — which often have in-house lobbying operations — who host events, collect campaign checks and discreetly communicate information.

This is the social scene that underlies and helps to explain SpotlightPA’s recent reports about the cozy and secretive relationship between the state Legislature and politically connected law firms. According to the reports, the Legislature spent nearly $10 million of taxpayer money on outside counsel over the past two years alone, with most of the details of the cases and relationships shielded from public scrutiny.

Further, several of the most-patronized firms gave millions in campaign contributions to the same members and party caucuses who later hired them — again, on the taxpayer’s dime — for legal work.

Now, it is important to note that nothing that has been reported thus far, unseemly as it might be, is illegal under state law. But that’s exactly the problem.

For too long legislators have benefited from lax regulations that make their lives easier by streamlining their personal, professional, legislative and political relationships — but at the expense of the transparency and frugality we should expect from those who steward public resources.

They haven’t done anything about it for the simple reason that the status quo works just great for them. And it’s not necessarily a conspiracy: In many cases it’s just friends doing business with friends.

It’s time, however, for more state oversight of these relationships.

The City of Philadelphia has a campaign finance law that could serve as a model. The law restricts businesses and individuals who contribute to political campaigns beyond a threshold figure from receiving lucrative public contracts.

It’s a simple fix that plugs up the pay-to-play pipeline, and, according to one analyst, it radically changed the culture of Philadelphia political giving.

The culture of Harrisburg, meanwhile, tends to be cyclical. There are periods of intense scrutiny and heightened fear, such as during and after the Bonusgate investigations undertaken by then-Attorney General Tom Corbett.

Then there are periods of comfort, where habits of casualness and, sometimes, carelessness return and dominate the political scene.

We seem to be in the latter phase right now, and it’s time for a shakeup.

And it shouldn’t be too much to ask for lawmakers to rein themselves in this time rather than waiting for a less sympathetic outside force to do it for them.

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