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HARRISBURG — An initiative to improve the online system lobbyists use to disclose which organizations hired them and how they spend money to influence policy has received a major boost in the state budget this year.

A line item listed only as “Lobbying Disclosure” under the State Department’s General Appropriations budget is funded at $714,000 for the fiscal year that began in July, an increase of 150 percent over the previous year. The money is a mix of dollars from the state’s general fund and fees paid by lobbyists, directors and lobbying firms to obtain a license.

According to a State Department spokesperson, the money will fund a computer upgrade to a system that has been criticized as lagging, unintuitive and often crashing.

“The new lobbying disclosure module will give the lobbying community new tools to register and manage lobbying cases”, said the agency’s spokesperson. “The development of the module is in its early stages, but the department expects the user interface and reporting functions to be more intuitive and user-friendly than the current system.”

A 2019 report commissioned by the State House Government Oversight Committee found that Pennsylvania’s lobbying disclosure laws make it easy to underreport expenses and make it difficult to ensure compliance.

State Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, then chairman of the committee, told Spotlight PA he didn’t know if the report influenced the spending increase. “I’d like to think (the report) triggered it, but I don’t think the administration cares what the lawmaker does,” he said.

Justin Fleming – president of the Pennsylvania Association for Government Relations (PAGR), a trade association for lobbyists – said the system was in desperate need of an update. He said delays in updating the website resulted in inaccurate disciplinary actions and delays that required multiple attempts for users to update the organizations or people they worked with.

“This is something we have been talking about in PAGR for years. We certainly welcome the resources allocated,” said Fleming. “Everyone’s time is wasted if the system doesn’t work”

A Spotlight PA analysis revealed that 15 line items received an increase of more than 100% in this year’s budget. Other programs included:

not “Agricultural Preparedness and Response” +1033.3%: This line item has undergone a significant increase – from $3 million to $34 million – so that the state can respond to animal diseases, invasive pests and other emergencies that affect the state agricultural industry. About $8 million has already been used to target Mottled Lanterns.

not “The University of Pennsylvania – Center for Infectious Diseases,” +541%: The additional funding of $1.6 million was awarded following last year’s avian flu outbreak and its effects on the poultry industry. A spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture also raised the threat of African swine fever.

not “Scholarships ready to succeed”, 331.3%: This program is intended to help low-income students in high school and is administered by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. It awards up to $2,000 to full-time students to cover tuition, books, and other living expenses. The agency requested $16.4 million but received nearly $24 million.

not “Susquehanna River Basin Commission”, +261%: This commission was created in the 1970s to coordinate conservation efforts with the various federal and state agencies that the river crosses. Environmental projects in Pennsylvania have seen a huge increase in funding this budget cycle. Funding for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission has increased from $205,000 to $740,000.

not “Local municipal relief”, +144.2%: This money can be used to help people or political subdivisions that have been affected by disasters, public safety emergencies, or other situations deemed worthy by the Department of Community and Economic Development to repair the damage to residences and private or public property. Funding is limited to projects that do not qualify for federal assistance, and the average grant is $150,000. A ministry spokesperson said the positive reception of the program justified the increase in funding.

Spotlight PA’s Stephen Caruso contributed reporting.

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