MY FAVORITE gifts-to-lawmakers story this year involves Rep. Mike Vereb.

He's a Montgomery County Republican and a former West Conshohocken cop who reported a gift from a Virginia-based coal company: lunch for him and his wife in New York - $1,017.

This struck me as a tad high, even for the Apple. I figured lunch must have included a pretty good Bordeaux, a fat tip and some $100 bills to go.

But Vereb tells me, no, it was "a reception and lunch my wife and I were invited to" by Alpha Natural Resources, the nation's third-largest coal producer.

"I forget the name of the place," Vereb says. "It was someplace downtown . . . I don't frequent New York."

At those prices, it's no wonder.

Vereb says he was "shocked" when the company told him what the lunch cost. "I basically couldn't friggin' believe it. No lunch should cost that much for two people."

Part of the problem is that there's no limit on gifts to Pennsylvania public officials, another example of how our Legislature fuels a culture conducive to corruption.

No surprise. We're already among just 13 states with no limits on what individuals, political parties or political-action committees can give candidates.

So gifts keep coming. The Associated Press reports that more than $150,000 worth of gifts to lawmakers in 2010 tops the totals of prior years.

The state Ethics Act (don't laugh, there is such a thing) requires that gifts above $250 and travel or "hospitality" above $650 be reported. Reports were due last week.

Hard to tell how reliable reporting is, or whether it's enforced.

For example, a fact-finding trip to Israel last summer sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia included Sen. Mike Stack, D-Philadelphia; Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County; Sen. Kim Ward, D-Westmoreland County; and Rep. Curt Schroder, R-Chester County.

The Jewish Exponent last September wrote that Ward paid her own way, but the federation picked up costs for the guys.

Stack reported the value as $4,887. Schroder reported $2,500. Leach claimed nothing, same as Ward.

When I ask about it, Leach aide Zach Hoover said that he made a mistake, didn't realize the trip had to be reported and filed an amended report claiming $2,500.

One wonders how many others don't realize what's required.

But, then, overseas stuff is popular. There were also trips to China, India and Ireland, I assume to bone up for all the foreign policy that's shaped in Harrisburg.

Globetrotters included Senate GOP leader Dominic Pileggi and Sen. John Pippy, R-Allegheny County.

Philly Democrat Dwight Evans' gifts no doubt improved his social life: $670 from the Eagles: $2,000 for two tix to a Philadelphia Orchestra white-tie event; $3,000 for two tix to the Philadelphia National Museum of American Jewish History "opening gala." (Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montco, must have had better seats: He reports $5,000 for two tickets to the same event.)

Oh, and Evans' Eagles gift was a January 2010 playoff game in Dallas. The amount claimed excludes the price of a round-trip charter flight, unless, of course, the $30 for "transportation" covered it.

Evans says that he submitted what the Eagles said the gift was worth. In other words, why bother with details - or the truth?

Evans notes that his gifts are legal and fully disclosed. He calls his hosts "important" to the state and says that the Eagles are "a major employer in Pennsylvania."

Yeah? So's Walmart.

Governors get gifts, too. Ed Rendell got $1,600 in orchestra tix; $2,158 from MSNBC for four hotel stays in New York and D.C. to appear on "Meet the Press" and "Morning Joe," and more than $23,000 in other travel and lodging costs.

Tom Corbett claimed $6,865 in gifts including trips to Republican governors' events, the Pennsylvania Society weekend, the Philly orchestra and $530 for a "trophy" from the Pittsburgh Penguins. I didn't even know he skated.

Twenty-six states ban or severely limit gifts. Dauphin County Republican Sen. Jeff Piccola three years ago pushed to limit gifts to no more than $10. Got nowhere.

Philly Democratic Rep. Babette Josephs has legislation to limit gifts to $650 a year and wants to limit paying for such stuff with campaign funds because gift-givers often are also lawmakers' campaign donors.

Senate President Joe Scarnati, for example, got a trip to this year's Super Bowl from the energy company Consol, which is also among his contributors. An aide says that Scarnati repaid Consol, partly from his pocket, partly from his campaign.

The gifts issue goes to public perception and public trust. In Pennsylvania, it's hard to imagine the former being much worse or the latter much less.

Although banning or restricting gifts won't solve the state's problems, it could begin to rehabilitate the image of those elected to do so, especially in the Legislature.

As Rep. Josephs says of gifts: "It's a pattern and it's a problem for the institution."

Send email to baerj@phillynews.com.

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