Bill limiting gifts to public officials moves in Legislature
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A legislative committee voted Tuesday to advance new limits on gifts to Pennsylvania public officials, including an outright prohibition on taking cash, although the proposal includes numerous exceptions.
The House State Government Committee unanimously approved an annual limit on the cash value of gifts and hospitality that public officials, public employees or candidates can accept.
The vote came after Republicans pushed through a party-line vote to add an exception to let lobbyists give birthday or wedding presents.
Rep. Matt Gabler, R-Clearfield, said he wanted to make the legislation “more workable” and argued that lobbyists have friends and attend personal events such as weddings where gifts should be allowed.
He said his exception is “allowing for regular human interaction when there is a significant life event.”
Gifts generally would not be allowed if they total more than $50 from one person in a calendar year, or hospitality, transportation or lodging worth $500 a year.
The bill’s other exceptions would permit gifts from family members or “gifts exchanged between public officials or public employees on a voluntary basis.” Lobbyist gifts would not be covered if the lobbyist and public official have “a personal romantic relationship.”
Other exceptions include informational material, awards, prizes, training in the government’s interest, food and drinks at public meetings and educational missions.
Rep. Jared Solomon, D-Philadelphia, said a tougher policy on gifts might help lawmakers improve their historically miserable public approval ratings.
Committee Chairman Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, said afterward the total ban on cash gifts is a central element of the proposal, and acknowledged the legislation is not a gift ban.
“There ought to be some middle ground in order for us to conduct business, as long as things are open and transparent and that taxpayers know what we’re accepting and from who,” Everett said.
Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, D-Philadelphia, was sentenced in 2018 to probation on a bribery conviction in a case that included acceptance of unreported cash gifts. Her investigation led both state legislative chambers in 2014 to ban most types of cash gifts to members.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has banned gifts to executive branch employees under his authority and has repeatedly pushed the Republican-controlled Legislature to do the same. Republican lawmakers were critical of the Wolf policy during the Tuesday hearing, noting that his staff have turned down bottles of water and paid their own way or declined food at public events.
Most other states have laws limiting the extent of gifts that lawmakers may accept, but in Pennsylvania, lobbyists and other groups routinely provide lawmakers free meals, travel and tickets to expensive sporting or entertainment events to lawmakers.