As Pennsylvania budget stalemate persists, 'dark money' battle ensues
February 1, 2016 12:00 AM
The Democratic Governors Association has hired Mr. Wolf’s former deputy chief of staff, as director of independent expenditures, according to an announcement from the group.
By Kate Giammarise / Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG — One of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s top staffers is headed to work for a group that has ties to an organization that for months has been running attack ads against Republican legislators.
The Democratic Governors Association has hired Joe Shafer, Mr. Wolf’s former deputy chief of staff, as director of independent expenditures, according to an announcement from the group.
The DGA has ties to America Works USA, which has advertised heavily in support of the governor’s budget proposals and against Republican state legislators. America Works USA is a 501(c)(4) group, also known as a “dark money” organization, because it does not have to disclose its donors.
A number of outside groups, on the right and left, have spent heavily on television and radio ads, as well as campaign-style mailings, targeting individual legislators during the state’s lengthy budget stalemate.
Mr. Wolf and the Republican-dominated Legislature have not been able to agree on a final budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.
In December, the governor agreed to large portions of a $30.26 billion Republican-crafted budget but also vetoed much of the bill, leaving questions about the final budget and how much funding will ultimately be going to education. He has called on legislators to return to Harrisburg and pass a compromise spending plan that the Senate had approved late last year.
Working for the Republican side are Citizens to Protect PA Jobs, which is affiliated with the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, and the Growth and Opportunity Fund, which is headed by Dan Meuser, a former Cabinet official from the administration of previous Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican.
On the governor’s side, America Works USA has advertised and sent targeted mailers to the districts of a number of Republican legislators, accusing them of supporting cuts to education spending, ballooning the deficit and letting gas drillers escape a natural gas severance tax.
First-term Republican Rep. Jason Ortitay of South Fayette said residents of his district in Allegheny and Washington counties have received several mailings attacking him in recent weeks; there have also been personalized ads attacking him on Facebook.
“For someone who’s still trying to negotiate and bring everyone back to the table, it’s kind of a slap in the face,” Mr. Ortitay said.
For months, Republicans have been accusing Mr. Wolf and his administration of still being in campaign mode, thus making working together or achieving any type of budget deal more difficult because of ads attacking individual Republican legislators.
“I don’t think that’s a coincidence” that a top aide to Mr. Wolf is going to work for the DGA, said House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana.
Generally speaking, rules governing what coordination is allowed or not allowed between candidates and outside expenditure groups are fairly lax, said Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. For staff members to go from working for a candidate or official to working for an outside group is not unusual, she said.
“He is very likely well within the limits of the law, because the limits are so loose,” she said.
“That’s very common and, in most instances, perfectly legal. Whether it should be is a separate question. But that’s the reality under campaign finance laws today,” said Paul S. Ryan, deputy executive director of The Campaign Legal Center.
A Wolf administration spokesman said a number of outside groups support Republican interests.
“They can complain all they want, they can whine all they want, but this is a two-way street,” said Jeffrey Sheridan, a spokesman for Mr. Wolf.
Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.
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