Update (5/25/23): County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has said he will not veto new campaign contribution limits, according to bill sponsor Tom Duerr. The new limits would then become law and take effect following the 2023 General Election.
Allegheny County Council passes campaign finance regulations, but Fitzgerald veto looms
Just as the dust settles on an expensive primary election season in Allegheny County, legislators are on the verge of enacting major new regulations on campaign finance for county offices, limiting contributions to candidates and requiring more frequent disclosures.
A bill that would cap individual contributions to candidates at just over $3,000 passed county council Tuesday evening with 13 votes in favor and two against.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s office did not immediately comment Tuesday. Fitzgerald previously told PublicSource he would likely veto a contribution limit. Council can override his veto with support from 10 members. If enacted, the new limits would take effect following the 2023 General Election.
For the first time in 12 years, Allegheny County voters will elect a new county chief executive.
The two members voting against the measure were Sam DeMarco, one of two council Republicans, and Jack Betkowski, a Democrat.
The new rules would significantly change the way campaigns work in the county. In the Democratic primary for county executive that concluded last week, multiple candidates received five- and six-figure campaign contributions from individuals or political action committees [PACs].
“The question this body is faced with right now is, do we want to send a message to the residents of this county that our elections are for sale to the highest bidder?” said the bill’s sponsor, Bethel Park Democrat Tom Duerr, just before the vote.
Under the regulations passed Tuesday, the large sums of money that came to candidates’ accounts from building trades and service worker unions, politicians and development magnates in this year’s campaigns could no longer be poured directly into campaigns. Those groups could still make independent expenditures on behalf of preferred candidates — with the key stipulation that they cannot coordinate their actions with campaigns.
While the government can’t place limits on independent expenditures due to Supreme Court case law, Duerr said cutting off coordination between major money and candidates would be a big step in the right direction.
“Putting an additional hurdle up, that’s a significant difference,” Duerr said during an interview Tuesday. “[Candidates] would have no clue who [outside groups] are talking to or if their message is the same as theirs.”
The new contribution limits, if enacted, would match the limits that already exist in federal elections, which are now $3,300 for individual donors and $5,000 for PACs and are adjusted periodically for inflation. The City of Pittsburgh enacted similar limits for its elections in the 2010s.
DeMarco said he opposed the bill because it didn’t do enough to curb the influence of third-party groups and it could give unfair advantage to self-funded candidates, who face no caps on contributions to their own campaigns.
“My concern is we’re actually promoting self funded, wealthy candidates to run for these offices or third-party expenditure PACs to come in and buy elections in Allegheny County,” DeMarco said during Tuesday’s meeting.
Betkowski said he agreed with the bill’s idea but that he thought it was outside the county’s authority.
The bill establishes a penalty of $1,000 for every $2,000 accepted in violation of the limits.
The bill also creates an additional campaign finance disclosure period, requiring candidates to report their contributions and expenditures on the sixth Tuesday prior to a primary or general election. Under current law, county candidates only need to make these disclosures on the second Friday prior to an election.
Another bill passed Tuesday would allow candidates to use campaign funds to cover childcare expenses while they are campaigning. That bill passed 14-1, with only Betkowski opposed.
Duerr said he expects Fitzgerald to approve the childcare bill.
Measure could be vetoed
In February, Fitzgerald said in an interview that he is “absolutely for campaign finance reform” but that new rules should come from the state level and apply uniformly to each county. If Allegheny County tightens regulations on its own, he said, it could put county officials at a disadvantage if they want to seek statewide office, with people from other counties able to raise money more freely.
Philadelphia, though, already has contribution limits similar to what Duerr’s bills would bring to Allegheny. Philadelphia is the state’s largest county, followed by Allegheny.
“I disagree with the rationale for [Fitzgerald’s] opposition to this,” Duerr said Tuesday. “… If the rationale is ‘I believe this should be done by the state,’ I think that’s kicking the can down the road on one of the few issues we can actually act on here in the county.”
Duerr, who did not run for reelection this year and has announced a run for state Senate in 2024, said part of the problem is the state legislature’s apparent lack of interest in the issue.
That could change if Duerr and his fellow Democrats win a state Senate majority next year to go along with their new House majority. Control of both chambers will be hotly contested next year, and control could remain split as it is today.
Action follows expensive campaign
Tuesday’s votes fell one week after the end of this year’s primary election campaigns, which were notable for their vigor and price tags. Four candidates for county executive raised more than $1 million, including money raised in 2022, and significant money went into the race for district attorney as well.
It wasn’t just the totals that raised eyebrows: Top candidates for executive received checks from individuals and PACs in the high five-figures and even six figures, raising questions about who gets to exert influence on the eventual winner.
Democratic nominee Sara Innamorato’s campaign received $300,000 from two service employee union locals and a progressive advocacy group. Runner-up John Weinstein raised multiple six-figure checks from unions and business people. Contestant Michael Lamb was backed by Fitzgerald to the tune of $75,000, and Dave Fawcett loaned $500,000 to his political war chest.
District attorney candidate Matt Dugan, who won the Democratic nomination, received more than $700,000 in in-kind help from one PAC, almost 10 times what his campaign raised otherwise from January through May 1. If that money had been partitioned off into independent expenditures, Duerr said, it would have been much harder for the PAC and Dugan’s campaign to create a cohesive message.
“Campaigns would have to be more deliberate with how they spend their money,” if direct-to-campaign contributions were limited, Duerr said. “They could end up spending less on negative messaging.”
Limits could also ease the avalanche of ads, calls and mail voters receive each spring. “It will help with voter fatigue,” Duerr said.
Fitzgerald has seven days from Tuesday’s vote to issue a veto. If he does so, the council would then have 30 days to hold an override vote and push the bill into law.
Council overrode a Fitzgerald veto for the first time last summer when it enacted a ban on fracking in county parks.
With 13 members voting in favor Tuesday, the votes are seemingly there to sustain the measure, though Fitzgerald could try to persuade some members to change their positions before an override vote.
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.