Remember when Pennsylvania legislators were supposedly burning with shame because four of their Philadelphia colleagues had been caught secretly taking cash? Pennsylvanians were outraged to discover that elected officials could legally accept such gifts as long as they report them and promise no favors in return.
The uproar prompted a lot of talk in the legislature last year about banning gifts of any kind to lawmakers and other public officials. A ban, some said at the time, was the way to rebuild public confidence and raise the state government's ethical standards. A Senate committee even hosted an expert from Kentucky - hardly a paragon of progressive government - to explain how that state's legislative gift ban works.
You may be shocked - shocked! - to learn that Pennsylvania legislators did not decide to impose such a prohibition on themselves.
And yet there was halting ethical progress. The Senate passed an internal rule banning members and employees from taking cash. So did the House - though not without some quibbling about whether checks and gift cards count. When Gov. Tom Wolf took office in January, he immediately prohibited all state workers under his authority from taking gifts - period. It was a welcome change from his predecessors who took goodies and junkets from their political pals.
In their annual disclosures in May, legislators and other state officials fessed up to taking more than $160,000 in gifts. But that's hardly a complete picture of the coziness between legislators and influence seekers. Lawmakers are required to report only those gifts that exceed a value of $250 from a single giver; they don't have to disclose meals, hospitality, and travel until a single source provides more than $650 worth.
The gift ban question may seem to have gone quiet in the Capitol, but "more is happening than meets the eye," said Sen. Rob Teplitz (D., Dauphin). The government reform caucus he cochairs is working to build support among colleagues for a bill that would ban almost all gifts, with a few mostly minor exceptions. Teplitz says he's been assured that it will get "fair consideration."
Still, the gift ban is a tougher sell than it should be in Harrisburg. Some legislators like the status quo just fine. "Lobbyists are not the bad guys in this," said Barry Kauffman of the good-government group Common Cause Pennsylvania. "It's the legislators that like the freebies."
What will it take to get the legislature to finally pass a gift ban? Teplitz has some good advice for Pennsylvanians: "In some districts, there are not enough people crying out to legislators that this is important," he said. "If they want this fixed, they need to let their legislators know that - and hold them accountable if they don't."