Taxpayer-funded mailers from your Pennsylvania legislator: trash or treasure?

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HARRISBURG — You may have noticed it in your mail — a “legislative update” from your state senators or representatives, complete with photos of them stocking trout, playing in a charity baseball game, or honoring local police officers. Perhaps you read through it, perhaps you threw it in the trash.

In either case, you — and the rest of Pennsylvania’s taxpayers — paid for it.

Government reformers have long complained the mailings are a cost to taxpayers and an advantage to incumbent legislators — "part of the Incumbency Protection Program," states Barry Kaufmann, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a good-government advocacy group.

Officials argue they are a legitimate way to keep the public informed.

Mr. Kaufmann describes the newsletters as "blatant political puff pieces," often with a large number of photos of the legislator.

“Rarely [do the pictures] provide any useful information for the constituent,” he said.

But House and Senate staff and legislators defend the practice as a needed way for legislators to communicate with constituents.

“Shame on anybody who says less communication is better,” said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the House Republican caucus and Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Marshall.

Newsletters do often describe constituent services — how to apply for a property tax rebate, how to get assistance retrieving your unclaimed property from the state Treasurer's Office, home heating assistance available to low-income Pennsylvanians, prescription drug assistance for low-income seniors, information about a legislator's office locations and phone numbers.

Other topics are arguably more partisan — “Corbett’s Fourth Budget Continues to Fail Pennsylvania,” “Corbett's New Budget Is Shaky, Built on One-time Sources of Funding” are recent headlines in the mailings of some area legislators.

And the newsletters are unarguably self-promotional — typically touting bills that legislator has introduced and often showing pictures of him or her speaking at a podium or meeting people at community events, such as senior fairs.

Letting people know about the services they may qualify for is a less glamorous, but critical function for representatives, said Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont.

“We really think they do serve a good purpose,” Mr. Patton said. “By delivering that [program] information right into people’s mailboxes, we increase utilization.”

Good government activist Gene Stilp argues however, that same information could easily be conveyed without a legislator’s name and photograph prominently displayed.

“They’re politicking on the taxpayer’s dime,” he said, by continually putting a legislator’s name and photograph into voter’s mailboxes.

Earlier this year, Mr. Stilp, who is also a Democratic candidate for a central Pennsylvania House seat, filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court to stop incumbent legislators from sending such mailings into areas that they did not currently represent but soon could due to redistricting.

“Non-incumbent candidates are severely prejudiced in running for office in that incumbents are, without any legitimate government purpose, are permitted to expend public monies in a completely unnecessary but highly self-benefiting way in the new districts,” his complain alleged.

The suit was later settled.

Legislator newsletters are common in other states, said Brenda Erickson, a senior research analyst specializing in legislative rules and procedures at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Like Pennsylvania’s House and Senate, other state bodies do often have restrictions on when such mailings can be sent, how many can be sent in a certain time frame relative to an upcoming election, and if they should be reviewed prior to being mailed to ensure their content is purely informative and not political.

"Legislators are elected and they do need to communicate with their is a fine balance on how that can occur," she said. 

"I really believe it is important for us to communicate our positions and votes on issues," said Rep. Dan Miller, D-Mt. Lebanon. "I really don't know -- what is the other way?"

Mr. Miller has been hand-delivering some of his newsletters door-to-door this summer in his south hills district -- both to save on postage costs and to be able to have in-person conversations with constituents about any issues they care to discuss.

Mr. Miller also notes his newsletters state “Paid for with state funds,” which is not required of such mailings.

The overall costs of the mailing are hard to quantify.

In the House, they vary from one representative to another, and come out of each legislator’s $20,000 annual office expense budget, which also encompasses a wide range of other expenses. In the Senate, each Senator has a postage limit of $20,000, but that includes everything that goes through the mail, not just newsletters.

Mailings are only sent to registered voters and any other names and addresses that have been gathered through constituent services, not every household in a district, Mr. Miskin said.

Officials also argue that newsletter costs have declined in recent years, as communication in general has become more electronic and social media has made it easier for officials to reach voters.

"Our members are finding more and more people are interested in Facebook and Twitter than a newsletter," said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi.

Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, estimates he has not sent a printed newsletter in at least five years, preferring to use in-person town hall-style meetings, social media, an e-mailed newsletter, and "telephone town halls" where constituents can ask him questions directly over the phone.

He does send small printed postcards to notify residents of upcoming town hall meetings, he said.

“Five or six years ago, we made a decision,” Mr. Costa said. “[Printed newsletters] were very costly and it wasn't the most effective way to communicate with our constituency.”

Mr. Costa also disputes the idea that mailings give incumbents an unfair advantage.

“There are limited opportunities to do a mail piece in an election year,” he said, referring to House and Senate rules that forbid such mailings within 60 days of a primary or general election. 

But is such a rule an acknowledgement of the benefits of putting a legislator’s name and face before the voters?  

“It's a longstanding House rule. I think it reflects a general caution about tangling up a legislative message with a campaign message,” said Mr. Patton, who said such newsletters can’t appeal for anyone’s election or mention election-related events.

Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick, who faced a competitive primary earlier this year due to redistricting, sent three newsletters this year prior to the May primary — in January, February and March, according to copies archived online.

Several newsletter items touted what later became hot topics in his race against fellow incumbent Rep. Erin Molchany — his vote against last year’s $2.3 billion transportation bill, and pay equity for women. Mr. Readshaw did not return calls seeking comment.

In the Senate, the content of all newsletters must be reviewed by the Secretary of the Senate to make sure there is nothing overly political; in the House, they are reviewed by caucus staff.

“You cannot do campaign or political stuff, period,” Mr. Miskin said.

Kate Giammarise: 717-787-4254 or or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.

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