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Allegheny County Council votes to limit role of outside money in local races

The Allegheny County Courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Allegheny County Council voted Tuesday to limit coordinated campaign expenditures between political action groups and candidates running for county office.

The bill offers clearer definitions for coordinated expenditures, in-kind contributions and other means outside groups use to support a candidate. It also outlines the kinds of communication campaigns can and cannot have with independent expenditure groups.

The legislation is meant to limit the influence of mega-donors in local elections, said Tom Duerr, the Democrat who introduced the bill.

“It's about putting as much as we can the balance of power back to individual small dollar donors and the voters themselves,” he said.

The bill is meant to work in tandem with other Duerr-sponsored campaign finance reforms which were passed by council earlier this year. The earlier legislation limits the amount of money that donors can contribute directly to candidates for county office. The new legislation seeks to address tactics like redboxing” – in which a campaign telegraphs the themes it wants outside groups to pick up – that seek to get around limits on more direct forms of support.

The measure passed by a 12 to 3 margin, with Democrats Jack Betkowski, Nick Futules and DeWitt Walton the only “no” votes.

Similar rules are in place at the federal level and throughout the state. Allegheny County’s bill is partly modeled on Philadelphia legislation passed last year before a heated mayoral primary election.

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The US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision prevents council from outlawing independent-expenditure groups. But Duerr said it can limit coordination between PACs and the campaigns themselves.

And during the spring primary, some Democrats running for county-wide office raised massive sums of money, with even more spent on their behalf by outside groups. Sara Innamorato, the Democratic nominee for county executive, benefited heavily from a group that used themes borrowed from her website, and the Pennsylvania Justice and Safety PAC donated more than $734,000 in “in-kind” spending to support Matt Dugan in the Democratic district attorney’s primary race – far surpassing the candidate’s own fundraising.

With these limits in place, the Justice and Safety PAC could only coordinate with the campaign up to the Federal Election Commission’s contribution guidelines, which currently sets the limit at $5,000.

“After that, they're on their own in terms of messaging, staffing, coordination,” Duerr said.

“I've worked on campaigns that have had limits in place and that haven't. And I can tell you that the hurdles put up in front of campaigns that have limits in place are not anything to scoff at,” he added. “Putting these limits in place certainly makes it harder for the left hand to know what the right hand is doing.”

The law now goes before county executive Rich Fitzgerald, though it passed by a veto-proof majority. If it becomes a law, the rules will go into effect after the November election, meaning campaigns wouldn’t see the effects of the bill until the fall 2025 election. It will apply to all countywide offices such as sheriff and county treasurer, as well as county executive and county council.

Council did reject two other proposed reforms Tuesday night. It rejected a bill that would have put a ballot question before voters on imposing term limits for public office. Another failed ballot question would have prohibited county officials from running for two seats at the same time. That practice is not uncommon, but has created chaos before, with candidates who win both seats leaving one of them vacant until a special election can be held.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at