Former Gov. Tom Ridge frequently repeated the old saying about sunlight being the best disinfectant.
He was sometimes known to share those famous words of former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis when talking about the need for campaign finance reform.
Ridge, a Republican, called for more disclosures and was open to contribution limits, but he showed little support for public financing of political campaigns.
Since his term ended about 15 years ago, Pennsylvania’s loose campaign finance laws delivered numerous scandals and villains, but the state waited through two more governors for reform.
Pennsylvania is still one of 11 states with no contribution limits.
Former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, the biggest political fundraiser in the state during this century, tried and failed to get reforms through the General Assembly.
“I couldn’t get the Democratic votes or Republican votes, so I moved on to other things I could accomplish,” said Rendell, who received more than $75 million in campaign contributions.
His successor, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett also called for reforms, but a campaign finance bill never reached his desk.
It was a goal, but never a top priority for those three administrations.
And even after several perp walks and court hearings associated with the Pennsylvania Turnpike “pay to play” scandal, there wasn’t much of a public outcry for change.
There was even less pushback last year after former state Treasurer Rob McCord resigned amid pleading guilty to shaking down campaign contributions from donors who did business with the state.
But Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican leaders in the state House and Senate say they’re ready to talk about reforms.
By the end of April, at least 12 campaign finance reform bills were being sponsored by House Democrats.
Democratic Sen. Jay Costa is also renewing his push for beefed up laws, and Republican leaders say they’re also open to discussions.
Wolf said campaign finance is the “overarching issue” that’s “part of everything we do here.”
The debate is about what needs to change.
Wolf, in his continued pledge for transparency, wants more disclosures.
For example, if an employee works for a company that does business with the state, that person would have to disclose his or her contributions made to Pennsylvania campaigns.
More than $1 billion has been raised in state elections during the last 15 years. Whether that amount of money in politics is a problem is up to the voters, said Wolf, who put more than $10 million into his own campaign when he ran for governor.
“I took advantage of the fact that Pennsylvania doesn’t have contribution limits,” he said of self-funding his campaign.
His reform package aims to restore trust in a government that serves its people.
Voter turnout is a clear indication of “disaffection,” Wolf said.
While last week’s presidential primary inspired a 41 percent voter turnout at the polls, that’s almost half of the 80 percent that showed up in the late 19th century, he said.
Shortly after his inauguration, Wolf issued an executive order to try and restore some of that trust by telling the executive branch it was not allowed to accept gifts.
It’s why the governor said he pays $1 when someone gives him a bottled water at an event.
But he can’t control the legislative branch, he said.
It was recently reported that Penn State gives free football tickets to every lawmaker – a gift that wouldn’t be allowed in Wolf’s ban.
“I seriously doubt lawmakers are swayed by a ticket to a Penn State game,” Wolf said.
But the question is how voters view that, he said.
The way to remove the shadow of a doubt is to not take gifts, Wolf said.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said there’s room for change, but the emphasis should be on disclosure, not restrictions.
“I think money in campaigns is like water. It’s going to find its way through,” said Corman, a Centre County Republican.
He pointed to the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, which put contribution limits on national campaigns.
Critics of the legislation say it simply pushed money into super PACs, which raise unlimited sums of money and campaign for candidates.
“It moved contributions away from candidates to third party sources that no longer have to identify where the money is coming from,” Corman said.
The senator’s plan would be based on disclosure and real-time reporting.
“If I go online, my bank deposit will show immediately. Why can’t a campaign check work the same way?” he said.
Senate leaders have not talked to the governor about the issue yet, “but we’re open to those talks. We’re happy to have that discussion,” Corman said.
If the governor will talk about disclosure and real-time reporting, the Senate could move quickly, he said.
House Republicans are also “always open to discussion,” said House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin.
But ideas for reform vary depending on who you talk to, he said.
“McCain-Feingold tried to fix problems and made them a lot worse,” Miskin said.
“What’s the answer? I don’t think anyone knows.”
And nobody knows if this will be the year lawmakers pass campaign finance reform laws.
“The top priority is getting this year’s budget done,” Miskin said.