Pennsylvania’s Senate is expected to vote soon on a proposal to restrict cash gifts to public officials, a measure that aims to change state law — not just the rules that govern the Senate or the House.The plan approved Monday by the Senate State Government Committee would ban public officials and employees from accepting cash as well as checks, money orders and gift cards. Those barred from making it rain under the measure include lobbyists and anyone “seeking official action” by the recipient of the gift.
The penalty for accepting cash gifts would be a misdemeanor or felony, with accompanying fines or prison time, depending on the size of the gift.
The bill hits the fast track as lawmakers signal that they’ve registered public dismay over reports that five officials were caught accepting cash gifts in a years-long sting that hasn’t resulted in charges.
“This was the easy — I don’t want to say easy — but it appeared to be the quickest way to get this moving without getting it bogged down in other conversations about how does that apply, and those kind of things,” said Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, who sponsored the bill.
Reform advocates have called for a ban on all gifts, not just cash. But Drew Crompton, spokesman for the Senate President Pro Tem, said creating a total gift ban would require further discussion and situation-specific rules.
“When you’re potentially adding misdemeanors, or felonies even, to compliance, the words need to be precise, and the boundaries need to be absolute,” Crompton said.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa said his caucus doesn’t have a position on a total gift ban, though he doesn’t writing or complying with such a law would be complicated.
“I think it can be constructed and crafted in a way that it becomes very simple — that we just simply don’t accept gifts, period,” Costa said. “And I think that is something that is important for folks to recognize. You have to have that clarity, and you have to have those bright lines.”
Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, chairman of the State Government Committee, said the cash gift ban is meant to kick of a discussion of a total gift ban, perhaps with exceptions.
“But it’s those exceptions that will take some time to work through,” Smucker said. He said a late April hearing would be scheduled to discuss additional restrictions on gifts other than cash.
Crompton, who helped draft the proposed ban on cash gifts, said there’s a lot of work to be done on that front.
“It’s a lot more difficult to write these gift bans than people think it is,” he said.