By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
Gov.-elect Tom Wolf has already asked his transition team to sign a code of conduct prohibiting members from accepting gifts, and he plans to implement a similar ban for the executive branch when he takes office Jan. 20.
Wolf’s Fresh Start policy plan indicates the rule will be simple: “Just say no thanks.”
For now, the General Assembly has said no thanks to a gift ban of its own — wrapping up the current session without implementing the ban despite an embarrassing scandal in Philadelphia — but that may change.
State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, said Wolf “sent the right signal about the importance of public integrity” and believes that the Legislature should do the same by barring state lawmakers and state employees from accepting any gifts and hospitality from lobbyists and those who employ them.
“Nothing’s easier than saying we just simply cannot take anything,” said Smucker, who intends to introduce gift ban legislation when the new session starts next month.
While Smucker said the bill is still in draft form and could change as it moves through the Legislature, it would impose a $10,000 fine, up to five years in prison or both in the case of violations.
Such a law would be a drastic change for Pennsylvania, one of 10 states, Smucker says, without restrictions on gifts. Public officials can dine out, play golf and take in ball games courtesy of lobbyists, as long as they disclose gifts of more than $250 and hospitality; lodging and transportation of more than $650.
It’s a culture, Smucker said, that “goes well beyond the standard interaction with constituents that most people find acceptable.”
Lawmakers can also legally accept cash gifts — something that surprised many lawmakers, said Smucker, who doesn’t think disclosure is enough to guard against corruption. So far, though, efforts to change the system have stalled.
The state Senate in April approved legislation banning cash gifts after a handful of lawmakers were caught on tape accepting cash from a lobbyist helping an Attorney General sting operation. But the House never sent the bill to Gov. Tom Corbett, who has been criticized for taking thousands of dollars’ in gifts during his tenure.
Corbett’s successor has taken a hard-line against such perks of public office. Wolf plans to sign an executive order his first day in office banning gifts for all members of the executive branch, said Jeffrey Sheridan, Wolf’s press secretary.
“People are allowed to take gifts as long as they report them, and that shouldn’t be OK,” Sheridan said. “A huge reason why Tom ran for governor was to restore the public trust in government.”
A gift ban could be a pivotal moment for reform efforts. Eric Epstein of the reform-group Rock the Capital compared it to an infant’s progression from crawling to walking, saying if a gift ban is instituted maybe lawmakers would address their generous per diem, cost-of-living adjustments and other perks.
Gift-ban legislation could also serve as a chance for the Democrat Wolf and the Republican Legislature to start on common ground, Epstein said.
“This is more than symbolic, but it’s going to take a heroic effort to get it done. Money never concedes anything without a fight,” Epstein said.
Smucker and other lawmakers were working to develop gift-ban legislation — including hosting a hearing on the topic — but he said they ran short on time while working out the kinks of the bill, including examining exemptions.
The legislation Smucker intends to introduce would include carve-outs for family members to give gifts to public officials and allow lawmakers to accept gifts of fewer than $50 from non-lobbyists, such as constituents who want to offer a token of appreciation.
“It’s awkward at times to say no to something like that,” Smucker said.
Whether lawmakers embrace the reform this time around remains to be seen, but Sheridan said Wolf is looking forward to working with the General Assembly to institute “comprehensive ethics reform that will cover all of state government.”
Smucker’s bill could be a chance to codify Wolf’s “no thank you” rule or something close to it. With the next governor pushing change, the legislation could gain traction, Epstein said.
“Nothing’s lost by trying,” he said. “It’s difficult for me to believe that the Legislature’s polling numbers could get any lower by passing a ban on cash and gifts.”