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Pa. legislator seeks to ban gifts to lawmakers

HARRISBURG - For legislators in Harrisburg, there's often such a thing as a free lunch - and breakfast and dinner - courtesy of the state's 1,300 lobbyists.

HARRISBURG - For legislators in Harrisburg, there's often such a thing as a free lunch - and breakfast and dinner - courtesy of the state's 1,300 lobbyists.

There's also free season lift passes at any Pennsylvania ski slope, and tickets to sporting events, from NASCAR to Penn State football games - all gratis.

Such generosity lavished on Pennsylvania lawmakers would come to an end under a gift-ban proposal by State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola.

But even the Dauphin County Republican is questioning whether his colleagues would support such a drastic change, even in the spirit of reforming government.

"It's a major change from business as usual," he said today after wrapping up a Senate State Government Committee hearing on the proposal. "The way we conduct business around here is over dinner and over golf outings and things of that nature, and that's the kind of activity . . . that undermines the people's confidence."

Of the 11 members of the committee, only Piccola, its chairman, and Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon) attended the hearing.

Piccola's draft legislation would ban lawmakers from accepting any gift from a lobbyist more than $10.

In Pennsylvania, lobbyists must disclose how much they spend to influence legislation and must report gifts to individual state officials if they exceed $250 annually, or meals and lodging if more than $650. Lawmakers must do the same in a separate annual filing.

But unlike 15 other states that either ban gifts or severely limit them, Pennsylvania has no restrictions on what a lobbyist can give or what a lawmaker can accept.

The 253 members of the state General Assembly reported receiving about $22,000 in gifts and $89,000 in subsidized travel - much of it to foreign lands - in 2007, according to an Associated Press analysis last month.

Several of those who testified at the hearing today recommended that Piccola redraft the bill in favor of a zero-tolerance ban on gifts.

"If you mean zero, then say zero," said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Government Studies in California. "Nobody is going to complain about a cup of coffee."

Piccola said the bill now contains the $10 limit to leave room for small gifts a lawmaker might receive. Last week, for example, he spoke before employees of Capital Blue Cross and the company gave him a coffee mug.

"What do you do? Don't take that," Piccola asked rhetorically.

Piccola's legislation would also allow lawmakers to accept meals, travel and lodging but only in narrow circumstances, such as a widely attended charity event or a function a legislator attends in his official capacity.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of Pennsylvania, who testified in support of the Piccola's measure, said such gift-giving is done for one purpose.

"Providing gifts, hospitality, entertainment, travel and other prerequisites is nothing less than an attempt to buy preferred relationships with public officials," he said.

As a result of the testimony, Piccola said, he plans to revise his bill and will bring it before the committee for a vote next month. He is not sure whether the committee will endorse it.

When lawmakers rewrote its lobbyist disclosure law two years ago, they had a chance to incorporate many of the same provisions Piccola is now seeking, but passed on them.

"It won't be palatable to most," he said.