Pittsburgh City Council may take what could be a close vote today on legislation that would change the way campaigns for mayor, council and controller are funded.
Councilman William Peduto plans to bring back to the table his campaign finance reform legislation, introduced in January. He'll back amendments from colleagues before pressing for a tentative vote that could lead to final action Tuesday.
If the amendments and the legislation are approved, they would apply the same limits to city elections that now govern federal races.
"Pittsburgh is one of the only major American cities that has no limits on campaign contributions," said Mr. Peduto. "Whereas Sens. Obama, Clinton and McCain can only take up to $2,300 [from an individual donor], any council member can receive $50,000."
In addition to the $2,300 limit on contributions by individuals, which rises with inflation, federal candidates like presidential contenders Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain can only take $5,000 per election from political action committees. PACs are political arms of corporations, labor unions and ideological interests. Mr. Peduto wants the city to adopt both limits.
Donors could give the limit in a primary race, and then again in the general election. There would be no cap on the total raised by a candidate.
The limits would take effect in 2010, after next year's mayoral race and four council contests. Mr. Peduto said he didn't want to create the appearance that he's trying to affect those races.
Some on council believe the legislation would hamstring city officials who want to run for higher office, like Councilman Dan Deasy, who won Tuesday's Democratic primary for a state House seat. State and county officials can take campaign checks of unlimited amounts.
The legislation "creates an uneven playing field and it creates a huge disadvantage for city officials wanting to run for other offices," said Councilman Jim Motznik. "I'm all for campaign finance reform if it's statewide."
Mr. Peduto said city officials could set up separate campaign accounts, which could receive checks of unlimited size, to finance runs for higher office.
Legislation similar to Mr. Peduto's passed Philadelphia City Council and survived a legal challenge that went to the state Supreme Court in December.
Courts have said that candidates can put as much of their personal money into their campaigns as they want. Under Mr. Peduto's legislation, if a candidate plowed $250,000 or more of his or her own money into a campaign, all other candidates would be allowed to collect twice as much as normal from their donors.
Allegheny County Labor Council President Jack Shea said his union coalition opposes the legislation, because a millionaire putting $500,000 into his own campaign "completely neutralizes other interested parties, because they're capped. Can you imagine 50 unions' [contributions] being wiped out by one man?"
Councilman Patrick Dowd wants an amendment that would have the Ethics Hearing Board log all contributions into a searchable online database.
Then voters would be able to figure out "if a candidate gets contributions from an individual [representing] a firm that gets special treatment from the city," said Mr. Dowd. "Even if there's a perception that that's a problem, then it's a problem."
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has said that he favors putting contribution information online, but hasn't committed to supporting contribution limits.
Rich Lord can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1542.