HARRISBURG A longtime good-government advocate told a Senate panel Monday that Pennsylvania's ethics and lobbying laws regarding gifts are among the country's weakest and must be "dramatically strengthened."
At a hearing before the Senate State Government Committee, Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, urged lawmakers to approve a ban that would elevate the state from its position behind states with expansive ethics laws.
"The incestuous linkage between gifts, campaign contributions, and public policy must end," said Kauffman, whose group has advocated for tougher ethics laws in Pennsylvania for 40 years. "There is no justification for those seeking action or favors from the government to provide anything other than information to public officials."
The Senate this month approved a bill that would ban cash gifts. But the committee's chairman, Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster), has advocated a wide ban on gifts and hospitality.
Under current law, legislators may accept gifts of any value - including cash - as long as they disclose them. The disclosure applies to gifts over $250 and cumulative hospitality - such as event tickets or dinners - over $650.
The hearing came a month after The Inquirer reported that four lawmakers from Philadelphia were caught on tape accepting cash from a lobbyist wearing a wire. The sting was conducted under former attorneys general, and Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane declined to prosecute those involved, saying the case was flawed.
Meanwhile, calls in the Capitol have grown for an overhaul of the state's relatively weak ethics laws.
In March, a bipartisan joint committee issued new House and Senate rules banning most cash gifts, with the exception of gifts between close family members and non-lobbyist friends. The policy allows members to continue to accept campaign contributions "otherwise authorized by law."
The Senate bill to ban cash gifts is under consideration in the House.
Gov. Corbett has said he would sign a cash-gift ban and support other efforts by the legislature to address the issue, but would need to see a drafted bill to make a final decision.
Committee members also heard Monday from a top official with Kentucky's ethics commission.
John Schaaf told them that two decades ago, a scandal that sent the Kentucky House speaker and other lawmakers to federal prison galvanized changes in that state's ethics law. Kentucky's ethics law, which includes a full gift ban, is now considered among the country's most comprehensive and restrictive.
Schaaf, counsel for the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, said that since the law went into effect in 1993 no lawmaker has been investigated by any law enforcement agency, let alone sent to prison.
He said Kentucky law will tighten even more in July when amendments take effect banning lobbyists from contributing to legislators or legislative candidates and lobbyists' employers and political action committees from donating to candidates during the three-month legislative session.
Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne) asked Schaaf how lawmakers under a full ban should respond to cookies or cakes baked for them by constituents, or a basket of flowers.
"We don't encourage it," he said.
But he added he did not take issue with trinkets or promotional items.
"Kentucky lawmakers just got a small model bourbon barrel, because the bourbon industry just got a tax deduction," he said. But, he said, "it didn't have bourbon in it."
Sen. Matt Smith (D., Erie) asked whether the law had brought a change in the culture of government.
"Absolutely," Schaaf said. "When the speaker goes to federal prison for three years, it has a chilling effect."