No limits: The mayor's office is open to the highest bidder

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The biggest factor in winning the Democratic nomination for mayor won't be city services or property taxes or development plans or personnel choices.

The deciding factor most likely will be money.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph M. James ruled Wednesday that the city ordinance that sets contribution limits of $2,000 from individuals and $4,000 from political action committees won't be in force for this year's mayoral election. That means the sky's the limit on the amount of money that any single giver can contribute to a candidate.

The decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by one of the candidates, city Councilman Bill Peduto, against two others, city Controller Michael Lamb, who dropped out of the race last week, and former state Auditor General Jack Wagner. Mr. Peduto argued that they should not be able to use in this year's mayoral contest funds they had raised in previous campaigns.

Although it seemed the law would require barring those contributions, other issues were raised by legal challenges, too. Judge James made his decision based on a provision in the ordinance known as the "millionaire's exemption," which says the contribution limits don't apply if any candidate spends more than $50,000 on his own campaign "at any time during the election cycle."

In February, Mr. Peduto had filed a separate claim asserting that Mr. Lamb improperly donated $52,000 to his own campaign before refunding $2,000 to himself. That challenge was later withdrawn, but the judge ruled last week that the self-funding exemption nonetheless had been breached, triggering the suspension this year of the contribution limits.

The ruling may have been legally necessary given the poorly constructed city ordinance, but it violates the spirit of sensible campaign finance restrictions, which are intended to reduce the influence of big donors.

Nothing in the judge's ruling would prohibit candidates from voluntarily agreeing to abide by the limits, but that's not about to happen -- not when Mr. Wagner is sitting on more than $300,000 left from his statewide races and not when Mr. Peduto stands to benefit from the fundraising prowess of his strongest political ally, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

If any of these candidates starts talking about the need for campaign reform in the future, we'll assume that it means they don't have any money left in their pockets.



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