It’s easy to understand the frustration of Anthony Maniscola, the former Pennsylvania Turnpike inspector general who says the toll-road commission ought to be disbanded and folded into the state government. The commission has long served as a cash cow for politicians. A March grand jury report found that turnpike employees regularly hit up contractors for contributions to politicians. The spreading of the wealth was even ritualized: The party in power got 60 percent of the take, and the minority party got the rest.
But folding the Turnpike Commission into the state Department of Transportation wouldn’t solve that problem. To extricate political money from government contracting, vendors must be prohibited from funding politicians’ campaigns.
Whether they want to or not, government contractors in Pennsylvania are expected to support political candidates. Doing a good job can be far less important to their survival as businesses than keeping the political class happy.
Outrageously, there is no limit on how much money a vendor can give a politician in Pennsylvania. For statewide candidates, contributions in the hundreds of thousands of dollars are not unusual.
It’s true that it’s especially easy for politics to overrule good government when it comes to independent authorities such as the Turnpike Commission, which are shielded from public view. Maniscola noted that the turnpike commissioners are political appointees who can influence personnel and contracting.
The commission says it has cleaned up its act and become more transparent. But how much can we expect of the commission or any other agency when the state’s politicians are taking baths in campaign cash?
New Jersey has an imperfect but tough pay-to-play law that prohibits contractors from donating more than $300 to candidates, and authorities are enforcing it. Last month, a state court ordered an engineering firm to pay $1 million in penalties on top of a $2.6 million settlement stemming from its violations of the state’s pay-to-play law. Seven executives and shareholders of the firm, Monmouth County-based Birdsall Services Group, face criminal charges, while two more have pleaded guilty. The prosecution put Birdsall out of business, and it will act as a stiff deterrent to others.
What if Pennsylvania’s attorney general had the power to conduct similar prosecutions? There would probably be more law enforcement actions like the one that yielded criminal charges against high-ranking turnpike employees and a former state Senate leader. And contractors would be more worried more about doing good work than currying political favor.
Maniscola was the Turnpike Commission’s first inspector general, and he shouldn’t be the last. But no inspector general can clean up an entrenched pay-to-play culture on his own. Pennsylvania needs strong campaign-finance laws and robust enforcement to do that.