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April 29, 2014 | By | Posted in Features

Could Kentucky-style gift ban come to Pennsylvania?

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa. — After a corruption scandal ensnared more than a dozen Kentucky lawmakers 21 years ago, the state limited how much lobbyists could spend annually on individual lawmakers and required that those expenditures be reported.

As John Schaaf, counsel for the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, told that story to Pennsylvania lawmakers Monday, he made a strong case the state’s law has worked. To his knowledge, no legislator has been investigated by law enforcement agencies or indicted for violations involving the legislative process since it took effect.

“I see this law as sort of a set of guardrails, and we try to keep all affected parties — legislators, lobbyists and their employers — between the guardrails,” Schaaf said. “And I tell them, ‘If you don’t go off the road, you’re not going to have the FBI or the attorney general investigating your activities.’”

 

MORE CHANGES POSSIBLE: The Pennsylvania State Senate has already passed legislation that would ban cash gifts, but some lawmakers want even more stricter guidelines.

MORE CHANGES POSSIBLE: The Pennsylvania State Senate has already passed legislation that would ban cash gifts, but some lawmakers want even more stricter guidelines.

Pennsylvania officials find themselves seeking similar safeguards these days. A string of embarrassing ethical and legal lapses within the Legislature and state agencies have prompted lawmakers here to consider their own reforms.

The state Senate has already passed a bill to make it illegal for lawmakers to accept cash gifts from lobbyists or individuals looking to influence the government.

State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, chairs the State Government Committee and indicated more comprehensive reform legislation will be proposed in the next few weeks.

Would the state be willing to go as far as Kentucky, which recently added a “no cup of coffee” provision that prohibits lobbyists and their employers from even buying food or beverages for a legislator?

“I don’t know yet,” Smucker said. “We have a lot of work to do to consider all possible options here. But yes, I think that’s a real possibility.”

What’s clear is there will be some type of ban on gifts that has “appropriate exemptions or exceptions,” Smucker said.  Those exemptions could include a carve-out that allows gifts from lawmakers’ family members or allowing “de minimus” gifts with values of $25 to $50, he said.

Pennsylvania’s current gift laws are among the softest in the country and favor disclosure rather than prohibition.

Lawmakers must disclose all gifts valued at more than $250 given to them by someone other than a family member or friend. They also must report transportation, lodging and hospitality valued at more than $650.

State Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin, said the bicameral, bipartisan Government Reform Caucus has held its own talks about gifts and reached a consensus on reducing reporting thresholds “pretty significantly.”

The caucus would also like to go a step further and legislatively encourage voluntary disclosure of gifts that fall below the threshold, said Teplitz, a founder and co-chairman of the caucus.

“We thought that was meaningful yet passable, which is the test that a lot of these government reform initiatives need to pass,” Teplitz said.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a good-government group, said simply forcing disclosure isn’t enough.

Other options include a full-blown gift ban that would force lobbyists to be more persuasive with their words rather than meals and junkets, or setting lower limits on the amount and types of allowed gifts.

“As long as a public official can take any amount of money any amount of gifts from any person at any time as long as the gift is reported, scandals will continue to erupt with some predictability in this commonwealth,” Kauffman said.

Like in Kentucky more than two decades ago, Pennsylvania lawmakers have been spurred to action by scandals.

In one instance, a handful of state lawmakers were caught on tape accepting money in a sting operation eventually shut down by Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who contends the case was badly flawed. In another, former officials within the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board were found to have violated the state’s ethics laws after accepting lavish gifts from vendors doing business with the agency.

Whatever happens, Smucker said the intent is to get a bill moving in time to become law this session.

A strong enough bill could pull Pennsylvania out of the 20 percent of states that don’t have restrictions on gifts.

“If you’re in high school, that’s an F if you’re in the bottom 20 percent, Kauffman said. “So, right now, we’ve got a pretty bad system.”

Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

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