New limits would curtail lobbyist perks for Pa. lawmakers, but one leader could stand in the way

Activists hold up a sign that says,

Activists from MarchOnHarrisburg have been pushing for a gift ban for decades. (Marc Levy/AP)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Pennsylvania lawmakers and other elected officials have for years been able to pocket almost anything sent their way by lobbyists, special interests, and others with a stake in government.

Yet bills offered up over the years to end a system criticized as the Wild West for influence peddling have died with little or no debate.

That could change in the coming months. A coalition of Republican leaders has publicly backed placing limits on gifts to elected officials and public employees — though one key leader has so far refused to endorse the change, a potentially fatal roadblock.

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Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman — a Centre County Republican who has reported accepting thousands of dollars in hospitality and transportation gifts over the years — has steadfastly declined to take a public position on whether he supports limiting gifts.

More significantly, he has refused to say whether he would block such legislation from coming up for a vote. Pressed to answer the question this week, Corman spokesperson Jason Thompson would say only: “The senator has no comment on gift ban legislation at this time.”

Despite that uncertainty, a bill that would sharply limit gifts and ban other perks has already passed a key committee in the GOP-led House of Representatives. Officials there say it could be brought to a floor vote before the end of the year. If it does, it would make history: No measure seeking a ban or even limits on all gifts, hospitality, transportation, and other perks has ever been brought to a floor vote.

“The time is right,” Rob Caruso, executive director of Pennsylvania’s State Ethics Commission, said of strengthening gift restrictions while testifying at a recent legislative hearing on government ethics and transparency.

Pennsylvania has some of the weakest gift laws in the country, allowing elected officials and government employees to accept almost anything of value, as long as they report it on their annual statements of financial disclosure.

Current law does not even outlaw accepting cash — although both chambers moved swiftly to change their internal operating rules to ban such gifts after a 2014 scandal revealed some House members had accepted envelopes stuffed with money from an undercover informant posing as a lobbyist for law enforcement.

Upon taking office in 2015, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf immediately signed an executive order to ban members of the executive branch from accepting gifts. But that order will expire when he leaves office in January 2023, and he has repeatedly urged the legislature to memorialize a ban in state law.

The measure moving through the House now, introduced by Rep. Aaron Kaufer (R., Luzerne), passed the chamber’s State Government Committee in late October. It does not call for an outright ban on gifts.

Instead, it would prohibit elected officials and government employees from soliciting or accepting more than $250 in gifts for “non-governmental use” from a lobbyist, lobbying firm, or principal — defined elsewhere in state law as a business or individual who has hired a lobbyist. Accepting transportation, lodging, or “recreation and entertainment” in connection with public office or employment would be off-limits.

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Critics have noted that the legislation falls short of defining key terms — in particular, what “non-governmental use” is — creating potential loopholes.

They have also lamented that it leaves the door open to accepting gifts from people who aren’t lobbyists but who are still seeking to influence elected officials.

Even Wolf, in an unusual statement, urged lawmakers to enact more comprehensive legislation.

“It’s definitely not the perfect bill,” said Rabbi Michael Pollack, executive director of MarchOnHarrisburg, a grassroots group that has long pushed for a ban, demonstrating regularly at the Capitol — and once, raining down dollar bills labeled with the word “bribe” on lawmakers in the House chamber.

Still, Pollack said there will be opportunities to strengthen the bill as it moves through the legislative process.

Even if unchanged, the legislation would have an impact. From 2015 to the end of 2020, lobbyists reported spending nearly $9 million on gifts, hospitality, transportation, and lodging, according to annual disclosure reports filed with the state. And that money only captures spending on state officials, employees, and their immediate families. It does not include spending on gifts and other perks for county or local officials.

Pollack believes that this legislative session could be a game-changer. He noted that both chambers have new leaders, many of whom openly support a ban. That includes House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster), House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre), and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland). Ward is a co-sponsor on a separate proposed gift ban bill in her chamber.

The sticking point, Pollack and others said, is Corman, the top Republican in the Senate. Though Corman has pushed for a package of bills addressing lobbying influence, he has steadfastly refused to take a position on a gift ban.

Spotlight PA previously reported that in 2020, as the pandemic hit, Corman was one of the few legislators to report receiving gifts, hospitality, or lodging on his annual statement of financial interest. That included just over $8,500 to attend conferences, including $3,828 from the Pennsylvania Bar Association to go to its mid-year meeting in the Bahamas.

Pollack said Corman wouldn’t say one way or another whether he would support the gift bill when he cornered the senator earlier this month in the Capitol cafeteria.

But he believes that Corman will face increasing political pressure to back the change, as he is widely expected to announce a run for governor.

“We are feeling good that we can move him,” Pollack said. “We’ve moved a lot of obstructions in Harrisburg. He’s hopefully the last one we have to clear.”

Spotlight PA logoSpotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.

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